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Four kids, two days, and $2.80 between them. Is that enough to experience the hardship of homelessness?
Friday, 6:45 p.m.,
Friday night arrives on the campus of Georgetown University promising some release from the busy days that preceded it. It’s warm in a way that nicely defies the season. A couple of could-be frat boys stand at the doorway of their on-campus apartment, drinking from 12-ounce beer bottles and trading offhand insults. Kids dressed in leather jackets, leather boots, leather backpacks stream past, headed out to the holiday-bedecked streets of Georgetown for a night of the freewheeling revelry that belongs only to 19-year-olds.
Inside the Village C dorm, 18-year-old Erin Gabrielson and her friend Erik Dugger, 19, are getting ready to go out, but their costume suggests that if they’re going bar-hopping, they’ll be slumming. Gabrielson wears gray, beat-out corduroys and multiple layers of sweatshirts. Dugger does a jeans-and-tie-dye number, with additional layers of this and that. They have dressed for a Friday night filled with a different kind of expectation. Tonight, they will leave this room and this life for 48 hours—taking little more than some blankets and a belief that two days on the streets will make them kinder, more understanding people.
The two are taking part in a program called the “urban plunge,” a two-day event run by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), a D.C.-based nonprofit organization that sends mostly college kids to the streets with no identity, only 70 cents in their pockets (enough to make two phone calls), and a vague suggestion that a two-day safari will yield new insight into the experience of being homeless. Gabrielson has just finished her dinner: some leftover pasta she had stored in a Tupperware dish. She sits cross-legged in a chair. The floor is a minefield of shoes. On any other night, she might be thinking about which pair the evening required. Tonight she’s thinking about rats. She’s never seen one in her life, but she knows they come out at night. Outside. Where she will be sleeping. Her pals, the ones who will be doing normal college kids things this weekend, are worried sick.
“One of my friends even gave me her cell phone number, so I could call her over the weekend,” she says.
Gabrielson throws a couple of blankets and a bottle of water into a gray trash bag. She and Dugger hop a university-run bus that shuttles students to the Metro for free. Friday evening’s a popular time for leaving campus, so they barely squeeze on. The night has already begun on the bus, with kids talking about bars they might hit, parties they’ve heard about. Gabrielson and Dugger see a few friends and tell them they will be spending the weekend on the streets. The friends ask lots of questions, but Gabrielson and Dugger play down the excursion.
Gabrielson and Dugger are very decent people, the kind of young people who care about something besides what’s on the midterm and who’s having the after-bar party. The two met during a freshman orientation project that sent Georgetown students to service groups all over the city. In between their college studies, they continue to do volunteer work—cooking or doing overnights at shelters, helping elementary students learn to read.
This weekend is a little different. Instead of assisting those less lucky, they will be imitating them. It’s only two days, but it still represents a commitment most of their classmates wouldn’t make for two hours.
Friday, 8:15 p.m., NCH office
The other weekend campers have already arrived by the time they get to the NCH office, right off of McPherson Square. Ariel Vegosen, 19, and Keith Leventhal, 18, both students from the University of Maryland, College Park, sit on one side of a table in the organization’s sixth-floor office. NCH Director of Community Organizing Michael Stoops, a soft-spoken, white-haired man, stands near them. He introduces them to Bill and Charlie (aka “Noodles”), two homeless men who will be their guides for the weekend. (“I’d trust them with my parents,” Stoops will say later of the two men.)
A longtime homeless activist, Stoops says the NCH urban plunge is based on a similar immersion program he took part in back in Chicago in 1972, when he was just getting started as an advocate for the homeless. He launched the D.C. program in 1989 and says about 250 people have done a weekend tour on D.C.’s streets since then. (The NCH also hosts urban plunges in other major cities, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and Atlanta.)
Over the years, Stoops has put together a guide for the two-day experience. “Plungers,” as they are called, are told to wear shabby clothes and refrain from showers and shaving for a few days before the weekend. If that doesn’t do the trick, they are instructed to rub coffee grounds into their skin to look dirty and apply fake tattoos to their faces and arms. Those are suggestions, but there is one rule, according to the guide: They must wear stocking caps at all times.
So they’ve got the stocking caps, but other than that, they don’t really look homeless. Nobody’s showered for days, so they’re all a little greasy, but they’ve skipped the coffee grounds. Their clothes are sloppy and mismatched, but not the type that are worn and dirty from weeks of wear. (Vegosen and Leventhal will later tell me they were short on crappy clothes, so they did a little secondhand shopping at Value Village in Hyattsville before the trip. They scored some good bargains, but all decked out in their new finds, they look more like kids gearing up for a low-budget vacation.)
One other thing: All four of the participants are white, which means they’ll stand out for another reason—out of the 12,500 people who are homeless at some point during one year in the District, 86 percent are black, according to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, a local nonprofit that oversees the city’s services for the homeless.
Stoops hopes that the students will pass for the small population of young, usually white homeless, known on the streets as “rainbow people.” But he agrees that they are a little fresh-faced. “You’re going to stick out like a sore thumb,” he says to the group.
There is the matter of backstory, as well. Stoops gives them a pop quiz, asking each of them what they plan to say when someone out on the streets asks about where they came from and why they’re there. Program participants are not supposed to reveal their real identities unless they’re arrested, says the guidebook. So they need to come up with fibs about how they have ended up on the streets. Stoops’ warmup questions get mostly blank stares. The four go through some vague stories about being dropouts or runaways, but everyone’s fumbling.
Stoops tells them to put some thought to their stories, and then offers a few parting words and safety tips: Stay with your partner, no drugs or drinking, and don’t trust everyone. “Don’t smile too much,” he adds finally.
Stoops knows that a program based on a two-day lark won’t drag these kids into a new reality. Not that the effort isn’t made. Participants are encouraged to panhandle for two-hour intervals, go into fancy restaurants and hotels and ask to use the bathroom, dig through dumpsters for cardboard and other things they’ll need, and donate plasma for money. And if they want a taste of why it’s hard for a person with no address and no phone to get a job, they can always try applying at McDonald’s.
Although Stoops doesn’t lay on the hype, the written guide warns participants that they are about to experience the “trauma of homelessness.”
“Remember, you will soon be part of the homeless population, if only for a short period of time,” the guide continues. “Don’t expect any special privileges due to your status as a student, social worker, etc.”
The effort manages to be silly and noble at the same time. Dilettantes of dispossession can’t possibly know what it feels like to be homeless. The primary condition of homelessness is one of not knowing—not knowing about the next meal, the next sleeping spot, the next time an arrest might come out of nowhere. A couple of days on a balmy December weekend won’t do anything in terms of teaching what it’s like to be cold for three straight months. And homelessness isn’t just a way of life—it’s a status. Up in Rudy Giuliani’s New York and here in D.C., the act of being on the streets has been criminalized, and people without places to go are often given the choice between a ride to the shelter and a ride to the pokey. All of the newspapers bearing headlines about IPOs and Web millions are nothing more than potential blankets and pillows to the people who have found themselves on the outside of a gilded age looking in.
Still, should the participants be suspect because they want a look in the opposite direction? They don’t seem to bring a lot of affectation to the weekend. It isn’t pity that drives the participants as much as curiosity, and the intimacy will no doubt pay off in small ways.
But as for sampling the “trauma” of homelessness, the weekend will seem more camping trip than hardship. When these college kids attempt to insinuate themselves into the lifestyle of the city’s homeless, they’ll find they’re just as white and privileged on the streets as off. They’ll return Sunday evening with full stomachs, money in their pockets, and a vague notion that being homeless—or at least pretending to be homeless—is a walk in the park.
Friday, 9:30 p.m., Bank of America
They split into two groups when they leave the office, each pair matched with a homeless guide. I stick with Gabrielson and Dugger, who, for tonight, are paired with Bill. It’s only a short walk from the NCH office to Bill’s spot, the stone porch of the Bank of America at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, where he’s been sleeping for the last 17 months.
A 47-year-old black man, Bill walks with a smooth, easy stride and talks in an even smoother tone. He seems just as comfortable in an office setting as he is out on the streets. (Bill asks that I use only his first name because his daughter, who works at a conservative law firm in the District, uses his surname as part of her hyphenated one.)
A former marketing rep/computer business owner with a master’s degree in psychology, Bill’s found himself “on the bricks,” as he calls it, twice in his life. The first time was in 1989, when he lost his job, and the woman he was living with kicked him out of their Mount Rainier apartment. “I had $10 in my pocket, I had my suit, and I was terrified,” he recalls. He took up his spot on a landing out behind the Marriott hotel at 14th and Pennsylvania NW. Two years later, he found work and moved into his own place in Southeast D.C. Then, in 1998, his mother died of cancer, right about the time his father, sister, and best friend also died. Bill says he was devastated, lost his job, and soon found himself on the streets again. “I needed to grieve and re-examine life,” he says. He took up his spot at the bank soon after.
On the way there, the group stops at a dumpster in an alley off of H Street, where Bill keeps most of his belongings. Seventeen months is plenty of time to learn the routine of a place, so Bill knows that he can stash his stuff in a compartment of the dumpster after the trash collectors come by, at 6 a.m., and it will stay there untouched until night. He makes sure to keep the doors closed so rats don’t crawl in.
Sure enough, his belongings are there: some cushions he retrieved from an office dumpster a few weeks ago, plenty of blankets, and a couple of flattened cardboard boxes. He sends Gabrielson and Dugger to look for their own cardboard. They do so dutifully, although they’re a little uncertain as to what, exactly, they’re searching for and why. Bill says they’ll need it to spread out on the cold concrete as a first layer of insulation. At the dumpster behind Club ZEI, a nightspot right down the street from the Bank of America porch, Bill hits pay dirt. On top of the dumpster, there’s a large flat box inside another even larger flat box, plenty of board for at least two people. “This is great,” he says, pulling it off the top.
Gabrielson and Dugger are still looking through the dumpster when they meet up with the first person who lives on the streets and doesn’t know they’re playing at it. A dreadheaded guy who introduces himself as “Gip,” he comes to greet Bill and boast about the panhandling tactics he’s been using out front of the club. (“‘That’s OK. I take $5 bills,’” he says he’s been telling clubgoers when they say they have no change. “They really go for that here,” says Gip.)
He soon becomes suspicious of Gabrielson and Dugger—which is no surprise, because they really stand out: two confused, nervous white kids standing in an alley digging through the trash. Gip starts inquiring, and the two mumble some conflicting explanations about hometowns, just passing through, something about dropping out of school. Gip doesn’t buy it.
“White people aren’t homeless,” Gip says as they turn away.
Bill brushes Gip off and follows them back to the stoop, all the while bragging about the amenities of his location: good lighting, friendly neighbors, no hassle from the bank employees. No need to worry about their things getting ripped off, he adds. He’s always leaving his things outside, he says, and his neighbors know not to mess with them. “I don’t have patience for thievery,” he says.
You can see why Bill likes the spot. The stoop is well-lit, and it’s shielded by an overhang that keeps out most rain or snow, unless it’s really windy. (“The first thing I thought when he showed us where we were sleeping was, Light. Awesome. That means there won’t be any rats,” Gabrielson will later tell me.)
Bill lays down his cardboard and cushions next to one of the stone columns along the porch. He points Gabrielson and Dugger to his “guest rooms,” as he calls them, which are just another patch of porch down the way. He places his backpack and extra clothes in a window ledge he’s designated the “linen closet.” Any food must go on the ledge, about a yard up from the ground, so as not to attract rats, he says.
Bill shows Gabrielson and Dugger where to place their cardboard and blankets so that they don’t get slimed by the pigeons gathered on the overhang above. He’s rigged a cardboard shield to put over himself so he doesn’t have to worry.
After a quick tour of nearby Lafayette Square, where a lot of other homeless people are congregating, Bill tells them it’s past his bedtime, and climbs onto the cushions. He tells the students they’re free to roam, but he warns them to set up their beds first to claim a spot. “Otherwise, somebody will just lay down and start sleeping,” he says.
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It’s a little after 10:30—only the beginning of a Friday night in college hours. “I can’t sleep yet. There’s no way,” says Gabrielson. So they decide to take a stroll around the neighborhood.
We head up to McPherson Square, where we find a lone biker. Gabrielson and Dugger approach him and make an effort at small talk. The guy bums a cigarette and then asks what they are up to. They mumble something about traveling through town and ask him about places to get food. “You’re looking for weed,” the guy says finally, unconvinced at their story.
They take a spin around a few more blocks, past fancy restaurants with linen-clothed tables, where suits decked out in party wear schmooze at holiday office parties. It’s the type of scene you’d see in an ’80s movie: empty-handed, heavy-hearted young people walking the streets at night, mourning a broken heart or lost fortune or bad luck. It’s a heart-rending thought, but then I remember that they’re just faking it.
We head back to the stoop and settle in for the night.
Saturday, sometime before 7 a.m., Bank of America
I’m awakened by a blond-haired, scraggly-bearded man named David, who sleeps on the stoop around the corner from Bill’s place. He’s mumbling something about somebody serving breakfast somewhere in the park. He’s a little incoherent, and so am I, because it’s still early. I wave and mumble a thank-you and then bury myself back under the covers.
An hour later, I emerge again, only to find that someone has placed a white paper bag filled with food next to my head. Gabrielson and Dugger will find, throughout the weekend, that staying fed is no problem. There are plenty of places within walking distance of Bill’s stoop that serve food to the homeless, and there always seems to be someone pulling up here or there to dish out more grub. “You couldn’t starve in D.C. unless you’re stupid or just plain out of it,” Bill tells them.
Inside each white bag are a cheese sandwich, a hard-boiled egg, a banana, and some cream and sugar for coffee. There’s no coffee, though, just the cream and sugar—which annoys Bill immensely. “I tell them they might as well not bring it at all,” he says.
Bill’s already up, smoking a cigarette and cleaning up his cushions and cardboard. Dugger and Gabrielson, however, are still fast asleep. The hours before 9 a.m. on a Saturday basically don’t exist for college students, and the two seem content to sleep right through to a wake-up time they’re a little more familiar with. They eventually rouse themselves, and we are off to what Bill calls the “9:30 Club.”
It’s not the same place that hosts concerts. Instead, it’s a soup kitchen in the basement of a church at 10th and G Streets NW that serves hot breakfast to the homeless at 9:30 every morning (except Sundays). Gabrielson and Dugger enter through a back door and take a place at the end of the line. Ahead, a couple of volunteers hand out peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and a stew made of beans and vegetables.
The room is packed. About 100 men and women sit along long tables huddled over their meals. You can count the number of white people in the room on one hand. So it’s no wonder the crowd stares when Gabrielson and Dugger enter.
When they sit down, one of two other white people in the room comes over to greet them. He says his name is Chuck and that he’s staying in a shelter not too far from the church. Chuck is a nice-looking, clean-shaven guy dressed in gray T-shirt and jeans.
In a 20-minute conversation—he does most of the talking—he lectures about the value of SAT prep courses and offers tips about computer graphics. Chuck’s a nice guy—if a tad intense—and appears content talking with Gabrielson and Dugger until the other white man seats himself at the front of the room and starts to read from the Bible. “I hate this guy,” says Chuck as he reaches for his jacket. “Someone threw a turd in the punch bowl.”
It’s hard to know how much you can believe of what comes out of Chuck’s mouth. Gabrielson and Dugger are lying their asses off, as well, so there’s some balance in the transaction. They still haven’t gotten their story straight by the time Chuck asks. Dugger offers that he’s from Seattle and is heading south. That’s when Chuck starts talking about the best places to go snorkeling in Key West.
Separately, Bill explains why the kids’ stories—and Chuck’s—don’t get too much scrutiny. “You can say anything, because everyone lies out here,” says Bill.
If lying’s part of the homeless lifestyle, then that’s one way they do fit in.
Saturday, 11:30 a.m., the Mall
The NCH manual suggests that participants try panhandling as much as possible. “After all, asking for money is about giving someone the opportunity to do a good deed,” says the guide. In this case, the panhandlers aren’t really broke, so the doing-the-good-deed part is just as much about getting suckered as it is about giving from the heart.
Gabrielson and Dugger decide to head to the Mall. They expect plenty of foot traffic on this sunny Saturday morning—tourists who will likely be carrying around cash.
They set up at a park bench out in front of the Smithsonian Castle. Gabrielson holds a foam cup in one hand and approaches anyone who walks by. At first, she sticks with a standard: “Can you spare some change so I can get some lunch?” Most people just shake their heads or pat their pockets and say that they have nothing.
But Gabrielson, a tall, thin, pretty girl with striking features and a mouth that easily turns into a full pout, gets pretty good, pretty fast. Within an hour, she’s got people—lots of people—offering money and anything else she might need. Some even return to give more cash.
One silk-shirted older woman almost has a heart attack when she sees Gabrielson. “You’re too pretty to be out here,” she tells her, wanting to talk at length about the circumstances that have put her on the streets and urging her to get a job busing tables, just to make ends meet. Gabrielson plays along, the tales grow taller, and the lies thicken, and pretty soon she’s telling the woman all about the barriers to getting back on your feet once you’ve fallen flat on your butt.
Gabrielson likes that she’s got the knack, but the bullshit that’s fueling her success has her feeling squeamish.
“I feel like we’re tricking them or something,” she says. And they are. Of course, that’s the premise of the program. (The participants will tell me later that they plan to give any money they make panhandling back to the homeless once the program is done.)
Not everyone’s ready to believe the lies, especially the people who are on the streets because they have to be. At Lafayette Square later that same day, a group of kids and adults pulls up in a van at one end of the park. A crowd gathers, and as the homeless people go through the line, each is handed a blanket wrapped in Christmas paper and a bag full of toiletries and other goodies: socks, shaving cream, a toothbrush. Gabrielson and Dugger join the queue, too. As they walk back to a park bench, peering in the bags they’ve just received, they’re stopped by a short, middle-aged black man with torn clothes and a scraggly beard. “Wait a minute,” he says slyly as he spots them. Uh-oh.
“Are you all doing that study?” he asks, his eyes squinting. “You’re doing that study on homelessness, right?”
“What study?” Gabrielson deadpans.
“That study on homelessness. You’re out here to find out what it’s like to be homeless,” he continues, no longer asking.
Gabrielson and Dugger’s story has gotten better: They’re both from Seattle; they’ve been hitchhiking to warmer climes. But the guy isn’t buying. He keeps asking about the study. So Gabrielson tries a little reverse psychology: “We’re not doing a study. Are you?”
He lets out an annoyed laugh, followed by a long sigh. “No,” he says, shaking his head. “No, my dear, I’m really out here.”
Saturday, 5 p.m., NCH office
Gabrielson and Dugger meet up with the other plungers back at the NCH offices to swap guides. Vegosen explains that she’s also had trouble passing as a homeless person. In Lafayette Square, a guy scooped her up and ushered her to a bench, all the time questioning her story. “‘You’re not really homeless,’” she says he told her. “‘Sit down here before someone hurts you.’”
Vegosen says she and Leventhal spent most of their time with Noodles, who plied them with story after story after story about his 10-plus years on the streets. Noodles adds in that he kept guard over the two of them all night, sitting up while they slept. Vegosen tossed and turned, kicking her covers off, he says, so at one point, he woke her up and wrapped her in her blanket.
Vegosen and Leventhal tell me privately that Noodles seemed like a grandfather to them, and that they hardly felt they were out on their own. They enjoyed the time with Noodles, but expect the time with Bill to be more like the typical “quote-unquote, homeless experience,” Leventhal tells me, using his fingers as the quote marks.
And Bill is, apparently, a little more hands-off than Noodles. After the meeting, he shows the students to the porch at the bank and then heads off with a friend to get some coffee at McDonald’s. In his absence, I mention that they should put any food up on the ledge to keep the rats away.
“Rats? How terrifying,” says Vegosen, her eyes widening with fright.
They head over to Dupont Circle to hustle some money. Like Gabrielson and Dugger, Vegosen and Leventhal have already spent a few hours panhandling. Stoops says that most homeless people usually make about $25 for a day’s worth of panhandling. These kids, though, are cleaning up. Earlier that day, I saw Gabrielson and Dugger take in $19 in just under two hours on the Mall. Vegosen says she topped that, taking in just over $30 on her own in the same amount of time. “I had a lady crying,” says Vegosen. “She hugged me when she left.”
Seated next to the southern Metro exit at Dupont Circle, I get a chance to observe Vegosen’s profitable tactics. She pulls out a cardboard sign she made before she came out for the weekend. In blue Magic Marker, it says: “I could be your daughter.”
She props the sign up against their bags and sits, cup in hand. Huddled in a small mass and wearing loose clothes and her stocking cap, Vegosen could easily pass for a 15-year-old.
We’ve been there only a few minutes when an older white man in a tan jacket stops and reads the sign. “You’re awfully young to be homeless,” he says.
“Things happened in my family,” Vegosen says in a totally unconvincing way. It’s not much of an explanation, but the guy reaches in his wallet and hands her a five-dollar bill.
By the end of two hours there, Vegosen has another $15 to add to the $30 or so she made earlier that day—for a total of $46.78. (She’ll make another $15 in an hour’s panhandling before the weekend is through.) Leventhal’s work is not nearly as profitable. (He’ll make less than $10 from his weekend of panhandling, but he will get two job offers and plenty of food.)
(“I feel like a con artist,” Leventhal will say later. “Like this whole weekend has been like an episode of Scooby Doo, and at the end, we’re going to take off our masks and say, ‘We’re not really homeless.’”)
As they walk back to the stoop, Vegosen boasts to Leventhal about her panhandling prowess. “It’s amazing how much money you can make panhandling,” she says. “Right now, I’m carrying more money in my pockets than I usually do.”
Bill’s already under his blankets when they return to the porch a little after 11. He wakes and talks to them, telling them about a job he got on Friday, which he expects to start in the next few weeks. He hopes to fill in as an administrative assistant at the NCH until then. Tomorrow, he plans to move into an apartment he’ll sublet until he can get his own place. If all goes as planned, this should be Bill’s last night on the streets. “I’m tired of people staring and not looking,” says Bill. “Even the guys [on the porch] are starting to get on my nerves. It’s time to go.”
Bill heads back to his cushions, and Vegosen and Leventhal dig into leftovers from the free food they’ve accumulated over the day. They eat cold McDonald’s hamburgers and fries, and pass me a bag of chips, sitting atop the blankets they’ve spread out for the night. It feels more like a slumber party than an urban plunge to me, but Leventhal sees the late-night outdoor snacking as the real thing. “This is so homeless,” he says, smiling, as he takes another handful of snacks.
Sunday, 6:30 a.m., Bank of America
David comes around at the crack of dawn again. This time, he tries to wake Vegosen and Leventhal to tell them about a meal program run by another local church. You have to sit through church service first, but the food afterward is decent, he says. Vegosen waves him away, saying they’re not ready to move yet.
A few hours later, Bill’s giving them some suggestions on where else they might eat. In preparation for his anticipated move, Bill has packed whatever he plans to take with him from his Bank of America setup in a purple Camel backpack he has slung over his shoulder. Giving out quick goodbyes and firm handshakes, Bill heads off up the street. He walks in his usual cool stride and doesn’t look back, as if it could be any morning’s walk.
It’s not long before the previous night’s food and drink kick in, and Vegosen and Leventhal need to hunt out a bathroom. The manual urges participants to see if employees will let them into fancy restaurants or hotel restrooms. But Vegosen says she really needs to go and doesn’t want to mess with an experiment right now. She opts for a McDonald’s a few blocks away. No one really notices when they walk in, except for one customer, who leans over to her friend, and says, in a not-so-quiet voice, “Welcome to kindergarten.”
Later that day, getting in to use the restroom at the Hotel Washington, a deluxe hotel on 15th Street, isn’t much harder. Leventhal seems nervous about going in, so he decides to wait outside instead. There’s no concierge at the door or right inside, so Vegosen heads straight into the lobby. She seems a little uneasy when she can’t find a bathroom right away but finally asks an employee, who hardly gives her a second look before pointing her in the right direction.
You get the feeling that if Bill or Noodles needed to take a pee, it wouldn’t go so easily.
Vegosen, who has done a good job of sticking with the manual, decides to test out employment later that afternoon. She heads to the McDonald’s at 17th and H, waits in line, and then makes a half-assed attempt to get a job application. “Do you need any help, like a job?” she asks a cashier. The cashier just looks at her. Finally, she stammers out, “I’m looking for a job.” The cashier eventually understands the question and turns to a manager next to her, who says they’re not hiring right now, but Vegosen is more than welcome to fill out an application.
Another customer—a guy on Rollerblades who’s been making a real asshole of himself screaming at the McDonald’s employees for extra mayo and another pickle on his sandwich—hears Vegosen’s request. He says he knows a place that’s hiring: Johnny Rockets over in Georgetown. “Are you guys OK?” he asks before skating off.
(The day before, Gabrielson received smiles and friendliness from an employee and a manager at CVS, who urged her to fill out an application and told her which stores were hiring.)
It’s lunchtime at Lafayette Square, and the homeless people who hang out there again swarm the vans handing out food. Vegosen and Leventhal also head up to one van to get snacks. They come back with soup, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, crackers, granola bars, oranges, and some juice. They’re still snacking away on those when another van pulls up at the corner of the park and everyone starts running toward it. “They’ve got really good food,” one guy says as he runs past.
Vegosen and Leventhal aren’t really hungry, but the urge to rush the van is almost instinctual. This time, Vegosen stands in line for ravioli with sauce, more juice, and some sugar-covered doughnuts.
Sunday, 4 p.m., NCH office
Everyone comes together one last time back at the NCH office. Stoops told me at the start of the weekend that most participants head right home on Sunday, because they’re exhausted from the weekend and anxious to shower and sleep. They usually plan a time to meet up later, so they can talk about the weekend once they’ve had time to refresh themselves.
This bunch, however, needs no refreshing. They’re a little tired and wouldn’t mind a shower, but they’re ready to talk at length. As they did the previous day, they take turns discussing the day’s events and sharing impressions. They agree that the warm weather and abundance of food made for an easier time than they expected.
“I’m so full. I’ve never been this full in my entire life,” says Gabrielson. “It really hasn’t been that tough. I’m sure it’s much worse when it’s colder, but there’s a lot of food.”
Vegosen is surprised, as well. “I thought I was going to have all kinds of problems, that I wouldn’t make any money, that I wouldn’t find food, that I wouldn’t know exactly what to do,” she says.
She adds that a tour is just that. “I learned so much….But I don’t think I know entirely what all of the baggage would be like that comes before you become homeless,” says Vegosen. “You can see that in people—that’s baggage they’re walking around with.”
In a way, the students have shown plenty of street smarts. They’ve gone out and taken advantage of the kindness of strangers, telling any story it took. But getting through a weekend without assets is nothing like going through life without assets. The students will go back to their dorm rooms, change out of their streetwear, and resume life as they remember it. Noodles will still be out there. CP