WASHINGTON — Every day, John Sterling trusts in the goodness of God, the kindness of friends and the few strangers who notice him at Union Station to survive in Washington.
Unlike the many hundreds upon hundreds of tourists, students and professionals walking by him with haste every day in the heart of the nation’s capital, Sterling is blind.
In the prime of his life, Sterling suffered a devastating accident. The black, 65-year-old former mechanic lost his sight in 1991, when a car battery blew up in his eyes. Unable to see, he became homeless later, when a neighbor he trusted pocketed his rent money instead of mailing it to the landlord. Sterling said, through all his sufferings, his Christian faith has been his mainstay.
Today, Sterling has a roof over his head thanks to Section 8 housing. He does his best to save his money and live off his monthly $600 in social security. The rest comes from the kindness of the people who notice him and take the time to speak with him before heading to the metro, the train or their next destination in the city.
“If I do what I do with what I have, then God always sends something my way,” Sterling said.
As part of the holy Year for Mercy, Pope Francis is challenging all Christians to “look forward to the experience of opening our hearts to those living on the outermost fringes of society: fringes modern society itself creates” — the portion of the world where Sterling and the other homeless or sheltered persons occupy as they ask for alms on the streets of D.C.
In April’s formal announcement of the extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, the Holy Father called all Christians to “move from indifference to compassion” and to prepare for the jubilee year by converting their hearts through practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
“It will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty,” Pope Francis said.
Throughout his papacy, the Holy Father has urged Christians to show personal solidarity with the poor and marginalized in society. At the Vatican, Pope Francis has invited the homeless to dinner and to tour the Sistine Chapel, and he has provided free haircuts, shaves and showers to the homeless in St. Peter’s Square. He authorized a Catholic homeless man’s burial in a beautiful Vatican cemetery alongside notable German figures, too.
But the Holy Father also has challenged Christians to ask themselves two questions when they encounter persons who ask for alms in his homily for Pentecost in 2013: “Tell me, when you give alms, do you look the person in the eye?”
“And when you give alms, do you touch the hand of the person you are giving them to? Or do you toss the coin at him or her?” he added
“This is the problem: the flesh of Christ, touching the flesh of Christ, taking upon ourselves this suffering for the poor,” he said.
“If we reach out to the flesh of Christ, we begin to understand something, to understand what this poverty, the Lord’s poverty, actually is; and this is far from easy.”
Looking at D.C. Through Homeless Eyes
The District of Columbia boasts a population of more than 658,000. According to government data from May 2014, the city also has more than 7,700 sheltered and unsheltered homeless men and women who spend their days — and some of their nights — on the city’s streets and in parks and metro stations.
At the Union Station metro entrance on First Street, Clayton Coleman, 62, a tall black man with white hair and a kind smile, explained that many homeless people like himself typically suffer an event in their lives that’s like a “natural disaster.” He said they get wiped out financially and knocked off their feet — if they were ever on their feet to start with.
“When you do become homeless, and you’re in a shelter, a person has to take advantage of all the good a shelter has to offer,” he said.
Coleman explained he has had his share of disasters. He had been in institutions as a youth, dropped out of college twice, went to a mental institution for a time and then got married, separated and divorced. He lived with his mother for a period and then was on the streets until he finally decided to seek help at the shelter on New York Avenue.
“I just decided to make it work, and even though it is not the best shelter in the world … I just decided I have to make it work, trying to find a day life, and then going there where I can get a meal, a shower and get my bed rest,” he said.
Coleman has no intention of “being one of those guys who’s relapsing and going back to yesterday.” He worships at Mt. Gilead Baptist Church on Sundays. He’s working on becoming a licensed street vendor, too.
“I’m keeping my head straight and keeping my focus on what I have to do to overcome my sheltered situation,” he added.
Catholic Charities’ Solidarity
The Catholic Church is trying to address the challenges the homeless face in the city through both personal outreach and through the efforts of Catholic Charities, which is the No. 1 provider of social services after the government.
“The city is really struggling with providing adequate family housing and family low-barrier shelters [shelters with minimal requirements for entry],” said Erik Salmi, communications director for Catholic Charities D.C.
While the numbers of individual homeless persons have remained relatively constant, Salmi added they have seen the numbers of homeless families increasing — in part due to a lack of jobs with meaningful pay for people with low levels of education and rising housing costs in the city.
According to Salmi, Catholic Charities tries to provide a “continuum of care” for the homeless in D.C. through low-barrier 12-hour shelters, where the homeless check in at 7pm and checkout at 7 am, transitional single and family housing units, case-management services and mental-health services.
Within the city’s network of shelters, Catholic Charities provides more than 1,300 beds to help meet the need. A 24-hour shelter hotline (800-535-7252) helps connect the homeless with a place where they can get off the streets at night. The services Catholic Charities offers are spread word of mouth among the homeless as well, but the organization also invests resources in outreach, such as through vans that drive around handing out blankets, and the Wednesday night dinner program at the shelter on G Street.
“All that is part of our effort to say, ‘Hey, we want to work with you; if you want more help, we’re here for you,’” Salmi said.
The key, he added, is to get the homeless from needing shelters into transitional housing, where they can then have a better chance at rebuilding their lives. Case managers at the shelters work with a person to get him out of the crisis of homelessness and address underlying causes, such as unemployment, job training or need for daycare services.
The problem Salmi finds is that the resources in place are still not enough. Despite the government’s involvement, there is a large gap that the private sector and private individuals need to fill.
Catholic Charities is also trying to “form a loose network of services, especially out in the suburbs,” which also includes recruiting churches to open their facilities to shelter and feed the homeless, and connect them with case managers and counselors who can help their situations.
“We’ve had more than 40 parishes that have done it since we’ve launched our program,” he said.
‘There Should Be No Homeless’
The two things the homeless need are housing and jobs, according to Enzio Sudler, a homeless man in his 50s whose friends call him “Denzel,” claiming he bears a certain likeness to famed black actor Denzel Washington.
Sudler said the lack of work “takes a man spirit from him.”
“With all the resources they’ve got here in D.C., they got money to do something better than what they do now,” he said, adding, “There should be no homeless.”
He has not worked in four years and has been clean off of cocaine for the same time. He worked as a construction laborer hanging sheet rock for 20 years, but he keeps finding himself turned away from construction crews.
“I’ve been turned down twice for housing,” he said. “They told me I wasn’t crazy enough: ‘You’ve got enough sense to get a job.’”
Sudler said he plans to hold Mayor Muriel Bowser to her pledge to solve the homeless crisis in D.C. But he said the system itself is deeply out of sync with their needs.
“They want people on welfare and food stamps — give ’em jobs! You know what they say, ‘Teach a man how to fish’ — give him a chance, let him get back up on his feet, and let him go from there,” he said. “I think a lot of people out here would like that chance to say, ‘Hey, I earned this; I can do this now.’”
For the Catholic individuals and groups who serve the homeless in the nation’s capital, the essential thing is following the advice of Pope Francis and connecting with those in need of alms on a personal level first.
“It’s about relationships and getting to know people,” said Emmjolee Waters, associate director of campus ministry and community service at The Catholic University of America.
Every Friday and Sunday afternoon, CUA students go downtown to share hot meals with the homeless men and women on the streets and in parks. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, they serve breakfasts. But Waters said the students always do one thing first before sharing food with the homeless: greet them kindly.
Food, while an essential need, becomes a medium to talk with people and helps them relate as fellow “brothers and sisters in Christ.” The “changing moment” happens when a person introduces oneself to a homeless person, asks his name and offers a kind word.
“That’s where you see the dignity of other people, when you build that relationship with other people,” she said.
“There’s always going to be differences between people, but the differences start to diminish, and you see so many more similarities between the person on the street and the person who is a college student.”
Andrew Hamm, a member of the John Carroll Society (JCS), an association of Catholic D.C.-area professionals, said he does not see the relationship as between “people who are serving and the people who are being served.”
“We’re all in this together, and we’re all part of one community,” he said.
Members of the JCS are involved in outreach to the homeless in a variety of ways, Hamm said. They help serve meals on certain evenings outside of Catholic Charities offices on G Street. Others bag breakfast meals for the homeless, and some spruce up the shelters, while others have volunteered to teach homeless women how to prepare for a job and practice for interviews.
Hamm added, over time, conversations with the homeless become “normal” in one’s daily life, whether entering or leaving the metro or walking the streets.
“It becomes part of what it means to be human and what it means to be a citizen of this city and this country.”
Hamm remembered one homeless man he met panhandling outside of St. Matthew’s Cathedral. He met him nearly a year later but was able to recall the man’s name — and it made a deep impression on him.
“He must have said at least 20 times, ‘I can’t believe you remembered my name!’” Hamm said.
“Of all the things I could have given him — and we all have material needs — it sounds like that made the most difference.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register's Washington correspondent.