This past summer I served as a human rights fellow at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. The policy work I engaged in there will help spur change for countless Americans, but my interactions with a man named Jim reminded me of the very individual reasons this work is so important.
Jim sits on a bench at 15th and K streets in Washington, D.C., across from a Cosi and one block from the Law Center. During the morning rush hour, his well-worn voice pleads with pedestrians, “Spare a dollar?” “I need to eat!” “Can you help me today?”
We usually say good morning and not much more as I pass by. But last Friday was a beautiful morning, sunny and warm without being oppressively hot. When I said hello, Jim declared that he was having a great day. He had found housing!
Jim is a D.C. native, born and bred. Education was a challenge for him here. His first grade teacher would turn on the television instead of teaching, and Jim was promoted each year without ever learning to read or write.
Jim enjoyed working in construction, but fell on hard times. After a back injury he was unable to work. When his mother passed away, the sale of her house left him a little money so he could rent his own room, but that apartment turned out to be the worst place for Jim. First, sheetrock from the ceiling fell down on him as he slept, re-injuring his back. Next, the old wires sparked and started a fire, destroying most of his belongings, and the rest of his money. In November, 2010, as D.C. prepared for winter, Jim moved out to the streets.
Jim has gotten funding from the Red Cross to stay in a hotel a few times, but generally he sleeps outside. He has diabetes and checks his blood sugar twice a day, subsisting on the kindness of strangers. Even though many people ignore him, he still jumps up mid-story to open the Cosi door for a woman pushing a stroller and toting a suitcase. He uses a cell phone to keep in touch with his sisters, his caseworker, and a lawyer helping him with the injuries from the sheetrock. Despite his illiteracy, Jim easily recites phone numbers and addresses off the top of his head.
Last week, his caseworker called to say that Jim would soon have a place to live, news he joyously shared with me. We both had the happiest of days.
My last day at the Law Center was bittersweet. This summer, I learned to fight homelessness on a larger scale, drafting resolutions for housing as a human right and editing a petition to the U.N. But as he shared his story with me, Jim brought into focus the reason for this all – no one should ever be without a place to call home.
-Julie Butner, former Human Rights Fellow