On a brutal December night, indigent men find a cold message on Trailer 8 at the Martin Luther King shelter in Southeast: “If you’re not in recovery don’t knock.” Trailer 7’s sign is even more blunt: “No bath, no bunk, we don’t want your funk.”
The denizens of Trailers 7 and 8 stand aloof from other residents of the shelter, but tonight the brush-off serves another motive: Three of the seven neighboring trailers have no heat. The signs ensure that boarders at the bone-chilling trailers don’t pile in on their neighbors’ warm digs.
The disparity in amenities has prompted complaints that the city-owned shelter, run by Catholic Charities, plays favorites when it comes to bed assignments.
“They have microwaves, tables, all the comforts of home,” says one man in Trailer 1, referring to the trailers at the other end of the facility. “They have heat—that’s the main thing.”
The King shelter consists of nine rig-sized trailers in all, lined up side by side on a long, elevated wood platform. Seven of the trailers are dormitories, each with 18 beds in six triple-stacked bunks. The heat is out in Trailers 1, 3, and, as always, 5. It’s also out in the unnumbered administrative intake trailer. Trailer 2 is working tonight, although it’s been testy.
Inside Trailer 1, the men are spared the wind, but it’s nearly as cold as outside. They are wrapped in thin blankets, lying in their bunks or sitting in chairs watching the fuzzy black-and-white television propped near the bathroom door. “There’s going to be a brother in here dead because it’s too cold—it’s been like that for two months,” says one man, sitting in a chair next to an electric space heater, a contraption that looks like a miniature radiator. One man says he might spend the night camped next to it.
At the far end of the row, it’s a different story. Trailers 6, 7, and 8 are warm and cozy, over 80 degrees inside.
Trailers 7 and 8 are transitional housing, Catholic Charities says, set aside for people who are enrolled in drug and alcohol treatment. “If you have guys who are trying to take the next step, which often involves stepping away from drugs or alcohol, it makes sense to have some kind of split of where guys are staying,” says Chapman Todd, Catholic Charities regional director for homeless services. “You don’t want to put half a trailer of guys who are coming out of drugs or alcohol with guys who are still using. It’s not going to be a positive experience for any of the guys in there.”
“It’s not really preferential treatment,” Todd adds. “The heat can go out in any one of those trailers.”
The rest of the site is supposed to offer general-admission emergency shelter—”first come, first served,” says Cornell Chappelle, chief of program operations for the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, which operates most of the District’s homeless shelters and contracts with Catholic Charities to run the King shelter.
But Trailer 6 is also exclusive territory. Together with the men from the recovery program, a small number of men from Trailer 6 are tasked with cleaning up all of the trailers during the day, when the population clears out. In return, they get reserved beds in 6, which usually has heat, and which they don’t have to worry about others messing up.
Their duties have embittered the cleaning crew toward the other men at the shelter, whom they blame for leaving the bunks and toilet stalls filthy and for breaking the heating system.
“It’s like this,” explains Robert Drummond, who stays in Trailer 6 and heads the homeless cleanup crew. “All this stuff was working in May. When the guys come in here so intoxicated, they keep messing with the thermostat.” Drummond says he sometimes tries to fix the heat himself, by cutting off the system entirely and then jump-starting it.
Larry Greene, the shelter’s administrator, echoes Drummond’s assessment of the heating problem. “One of the clients, drunk, gets too hot, and turns [down] the thermostat,” Greene says. “We asked the government worker who came out to fix it to put [heat] in the office,” he says. “They claimed they didn’t have the money for supplies and stuff.”
“There are a whole lot of problems,” he adds. “I’ve been calling about the deck. It’s just old and needs to be reinforced.” The heat in the administrative trailer is always broken, Greene says, because of the fluctuations in temperature caused by all the comings and goings.
“First of all, no one should be in a cold trailer,” says Chappelle. “Second of all, we’re trying to fix the cold trailers. We’re trying to fix anything that goes wrong. We’re waiting for parts.” He is uncertain when the heat will work consistently again, and he’s not optimistic. The trailers are no longer made, parts are scarce, and off-line trailers have already been “cannibalized.”
“The partnership has asked the city to identify another site,” he says. “That’s a city call. We would love to get out of the trailers. We don’t think they are the most humane environment for folks. We in the community have advocated to get out of the trailers. Then it becomes, Where do you find a site for 108 persons?”
A spokesperson for the D.C. Department of Human Services says the city is looking for space on another site to replace the trailers. “I don’t have a timeline to give you for that,” says Debra Daniels. “It takes time to find space for the homeless.”
On the platform, the men wait in line outside Trailer 4, the kitchen trailer, for their hot chicken. The church group has been singing and stamping on the wood boards, as much for warmth as for rhythm. Some of the men complain about the cold accommodations. “They’re doing the best they can,” another man rebukes them.
Ricky Martin, who is standing in line with him, is staying at the King shelter for the third time since 1990. Still wearing his tie from his security job, he sharply replies, “If that’s what you settle with, that’s what they’re going to give you.” CP