The New Homeless In America’s Wealthy Capital

In one of the richest and most powerful cities in America, homelessness is reaching crisis point – a record 4,000 people are in emergency shelters in Washington DC, many of them children.

America's Wealthy Capital

The easiest way to explain away homelessness is to make it personal: drug abuse, mental health issues, alcoholism. However, in the US capital the easy answer is no longer the right one.

In a city with one of the highest concentrations of personal wealth in America, income inequality is growing.

Rising rents and a lack of affordable housing are changing the profile of those people with nowhere to live.

Alongside the chronic homeless with long-term needs, are a rising number of families and people who have previously held down jobs.

Now President Barack Obama has announced he wants to spend an extra £345m in 2016 to help tackle homelessness, alongside rental assistance for an additional 67,000 families.

Crystal White used to work in a dialysis centre, her husband Anthony is a qualified chef. After losing their jobs in Florida they moved to DC with their two young children, living in motels.

Things snowballed when their family car broke down and they struggled to find work. Running out of money, they were forced to sleep overnight at the train station.

Crystal said: “You really don’t want to fall asleep there, so you have to keep your eyes open. It was just really hard.”

The family are now living at the Central Union Mission, a faith-based shelter that relies on donations to provide food and beds for hundreds of homeless people every day.

The Mission is an emergency shelter for adult men, but when the White family turned up during freezing temperatures they refused to turn them away.

Anthony struggles to accept help: “I don’t really look people in the eye anymore, I’m just embarrassed, I look away. I feel hurt on the inside, I don’t feel like a man on the inside. I can’t provide for my family – I’m asking everybody for a hand-out.”

Washington is struggling to cope with the rising number of homeless children. The DC General Family Shelter – the District’s biggest – is at capacity with 232 families living there.

The city is burning through its budget by renting 400 motel rooms a night to house the homeless, forcing cuts elsewhere.

Kendra is living in a motel with her daughters, aged three and five. She couldn’t afford her rent after her welfare payments were cut, and had to beg the authorities for help.

But she remains optimistic: “It’s small here but it’s better than nothing, so I’m just grateful. I would rather be here than walking the streets in the cold. It’s tough but I know things will get better.”

About the Author