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During his July 29 speech at the Democratic National Convention, the party’s presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry, invoked a dramatic bit of imagery in an attempt to bring attention to the nation’s problem of poverty.
“What does it mean when people are huddled in blankets in the cold, sleeping in Lafayette Park on the doorstep of the White House itself…?” Kerry wondered.
Using the example of the men and women who occupy benches in the strip of park at 16th and H Streets NW—just paces from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—was likely viewed as an effective way to encapsulate the contrast between this country’s haves and have-nots. But for those in D.C. who’ve lived through quite a few political conventions, the example comes off as stale. Talking about Lafayette Park has provided a nice little abstract on America’s economic woes for the better part of 20 years.
Kerry’s short sentence does show progress from previous administrations’ views on Lafayette Park. In 1988, former President Ronald Reagan famously quipped, “They make it their own choice for staying out there,” when asked about the park’s homeless population.
The example is an old one, trotted out by those running for office every time they need to horrify audiences and then swoop in and assure them that things will be cleaned up on their watch. It’s almost as if they believe that the homeless exist in Lafayette Park simply to add spice to dull monologues. If jobs that paid a living wage and decent, affordable housing were provided to the people of the park, what new locale would provide such neat political allegory? Citing the homeless who huddle beneath the St. Louis arch or seek refuge in the long stripe of shade cast by the Sears Tower just doesn’t have the same ring of drama and desperation.
Former President Bill Clinton frequently alluded to poverty just steps away from the White House in speeches and addresses while he was commander in chief. He mentioned that he befriended homeless people whom he saw “two blocks from my back door” as he went on his morning jogs. Tipper Gore also made a few buddies in the park during the time when her husband was vice president. She spoke often of becoming close to one mentally ill homeless woman in particular who shared her given name, Mary, as well as her dream of one day becoming first lady—the park resident believed herself to be Clinton’s bride.
Lafayette Park provides such an irresistible means of illustrating the unfairness of wealth distribution in the United States that in a 1989 tirade about the country’s war on drugs, President George H.W. Bush was broadcast into homes famously waving a baggie of crack and claiming that it was procured “in a park across the street from the White House.” It was later revealed that the rock came from a drug dealer who was lured from his normal post in Southeast into Lafayette Park just for the buy. After all, people in Bumblefuck, America, could care less about crack being sold in embattled neighborhoods they would never step foot in, right? But place the illegal substance in the shadow of the seat of power, and you’ve sent the message that no one is immune to the scourge of drugs.
But although Lafayette Park is a convenient political touchstone, it’s not an entirely accurate one. On a sticky Saturday afternoon, Nyasha Katedza sits in Lafayette Park reading a book. “I haven’t seen many homeless here—are they homeless?” She points to a man and women with bags at their feet who are napping. “Maybe there are more at night.”
Still, she can see why the White House/ Lafayette Park contrast is a trusty implement in every speechwriter’s toolbox.
“It is one of the dichotomies of American life—you see the White House and people here with no place to sleep,” she says. “But something has to be done about it—the right way.”
The simple fact is that things in Lafayette Park aren’t as grim as they once were. That is not to say that this city, and the nation as a whole, has solved its homeless problem by any stretch. But Lafayette Park is no longer the nexus of our society’s shortcomings, where everything that is wrong with this country is prominently on display.
One park patron, a woman who identifies herself only as a religious “prophet” who has been coming to the park frequently over the past few years to pray when so directed by God, says she doesn’t consider Lafayette to be a true metric of the seriousness of the problem of homelessness. She says the harassment that the homeless often face isn’t evident at Lafayette. “I’ve been here at all hours, and nothing is ever out of control,” she says.
The woman goes on to say that the security forces who monitor Lafayette are kind but firm, and that she’s never witnessed any of the homeless being ridiculed or disturbed.
But part of the reason that the she hasn’t seen homeless harassed in the park is because they’ve largely been forced off the grounds in recent years.
“The people staying in Lafayette Park have mostly been displaced by security sweeps or construction,” says Scott McNeilly, staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “The individuals that frequented that park are still in the streets—they’ve found different benches or different places in the city. There is less visible homelessness in the park, but not because of any reduction in numbers.”
But McNeilly adds that, although Kerry’s park mention isn’t exactly timely, it has value if it brings national attention to the issue of homelessness in D.C. and stops cuts to programs such as Section 8.
“It’s an outdated reference, but there are still people in Lafayette Park,” he says.
The symbolism of the park is much more complicated than it was 20 years ago. The patch of green has always been overrun with tourists and commuters waiting for bus connections and office workers reading books, but now such visitors make up the transient majority of people sitting on the park’s benches on any given day. Only the long-suffering vigil-keepers who have dubbed Lafayette “Peace Park” and a smattering of homeless faces can claim any sort of permanent residency—even the once-frequent stops of McKenna’s Wagon mobile soup kitchen, a project of Martha’s Table, have ceased.
A history of run-ins in the ’80s and ’90s, when both the homeless and the peace protesters were routinely told to move along, has sent the message that their presence in Lafayette is not wanted. Regulations prohibiting sleeping and lying down in federal parks and Lafayette-specific regs regarding the storage of personal property also make it a less-than-ideal locale to set up camp.
“On D.C. property, you can sleep—you can put down your cardboard, your blanket—and violate no law,” says McNeilly. “As far as the homeless, if you can’t sleep, can’t lie down, you’re going to have to move eventually.”
Katedza says this is her first time in the park—she only came here today because she has seen the park from the bus and thought it a good place to come and read under the shade of the many trees. But she then divulges that she herself has been living on the street, in and around Washington, for roughly two years. “I don’t see a time when there’s not going to be homelessness,” she says. “It’s part of America’s fabric.”
Katedza says that she wants to see action surrounding the issue of homelessness. But she worries that mentioning the park by name will encourage people to come down and bask in the injustice of it all and, therefore, spur the powers that be to kick out the few homeless who can be found there. “It’s one of those situations where it doesn’t help,” she says of Kerry’s brief mention of Lafayette Park.
She also notes that the majority of neighborhood homeless now favor nearby McPherson Square, which is about three blocks down from Lafayette.
But “What does it mean when people are huddled in blankets in the cold, sleeping in McPherson Square…just a short walk north from the doorstep of the White House, past the Department of Veterans Affairs, through the intersection, and on the right” isn’t quite as powerful. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Deanna Staffo.