Walkathon at Dupont Circle raises money for homeless Latinos
by Annette Birch
Carlos has seen firsthand what homelessness does to a person – and to a family. He had a family and a job as a deputy court clerk, but he lost it all when he started using alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. After several years he got back to his family and now has a job as a security officer. Carlos joined other advocates for the homeless walkathon in Dupont Circle on September 14 to raise money for homeless Latinos.
“2003 I was in the street. I had abandoned my house because of drugs and personal matters. I lived in the parks.” Carlos volunteers together with his wife and daughter for DC Doors which is the beneficiary of the walkathon and helps homeless Latino women, children and families. Each year DC Doors helps over 80 individuals to move from homelessness to permanent housing. The walkathon is one of several walks for the homeless in Washington, D.C. It was held by Fannie Mae, a government-supported company which backs home mortgages.
The homeless situation in Washington, D.C. has not improved. There were 6,546 homeless people in Washington, D.C in January 2011, according to the latest count by the Community Partnership for the Homelessness. Twenty-two percent of them are Latinos. This is a 9.3 percent increase since 2008-2011.
The Executive Director of DC Doors, Janethe Pena, has seen how the problems for Latino homeless persons have gotten worse since 2009. “The economic crisis has made everything worse. Recently we have seen that people who got homeless can be well educated, but cannot hold a job. The Latino community takes care of its own. But it gets to a point where there is no more options,” Pena said.
Back from the streets
Over half of homeless people in Washington, D.C, a total of 3,553 persons, are single, predominantly male like Carlos. But he decided to change his life – and he got help from a homeless shelter, ‘La casa’, the Spanish word for “house”, which like DC Doors is one of the few English-Spanish bilingual initiatives for people who are homeless in Washington, D.C.
It happened on one day where, like so many days, Carlos wasn’t sure where he would sleep until he stumbled on a shelter. “Walking in the Latin quarters of Mount Pleasant, I saw a sign which said ‘La Casa,’” he said. He was accepted into the men-only shelter after a process that included a seven-day detoxification at a nearby hospital.
Life at the shelter was not always easy. There were no individual rooms, only rooms with bunk beds. “It was a strange living. We were 24 regular people registered, but at 6 p.m. they opened their doors for other homeless people who could come in from the street, get food, being washed and stay till 6 a.m. in the morning. It could get very crowded at night,” Carlos said.
There was a strict procedure about no drugs and no alcohol at the shelter. The first seven days nobody was allowed to go anywhere, watch TV or do any form of recreation. After seven days they could share their experiences with others. Everyone got a specific task, such as cleaning toilets, washing dishes or cleaning the kitchen and everyone had to make sure their bed was in order, they were clean and their clothes washed.
“I learned a lot. I learned to respect others and not violate their space. And I learned how to behave and how to communicate. It also taught me that I should return to my family and tell my wife and my children that I was sorry,” Carlos said and had to look down to hide the tears in his eyes. After 6 months Carlos got a space at his mother’s house and visited his family. Gradually he gained the trust of his wife again and now they are back together.