The Downtown Homeless Services Team primarily encounters and engages older, unaccompanied men and women (average age of 50) living on Downtown streets. These vulnerable individuals often have no family or loved ones to turn to for help and have spent years, sometimes decades, without a home or support system. This past month, however, the outreach team met two individuals with a very different story, persons who experienced homelessness together on DowntownDC BID area streets: hearing-impaired Coral, who uses sign language to communicate, and Malcolm, her 5-year-old son, who eagerly tried to ease the communication barrier.
Coral lived in constant fear of losing her son and took every step she could to protect him. During the daytime, she attempted to “blend in” with other families, often walking through malls, stores, and other public spaces. At night, Coral took Malcolm to a Penn Quarter park, slept for a few hours, and awakened early the next morning to avoid being seen.
She was constantly on guard, scanning the area for threats. Being hearing impaired only heightened Coral’s sense of danger as she could not easily hear what was going on around her. Coral never expected that she would be in this precarious position, but a combination of domestic violence, financial hardship, and a lack of accessible and affordable childcare and housing contributed to her instability, severe stress level and homelessness.
The Downtown Homeless Services Team met Coral and Malcolm through word of mouth. Outreach staff received word from another person experiencing homelessness in Downtown that a vulnerable family was sleeping in the area and needed help from the team, which quickly took steps to meet the family during nighttime hours to ensure their safety and build trust. Initially, Coral and outreach staff communicated via paper and pen. The team then enlisted a volunteer fluent in sign language to further bridge the communication gap. With the volunteer’s services, the outreach team was able to communicate more effectively and come up with a plan to reconnect Coral and Malcolm to distant family members in Mississippi.
After a number of phone calls to her family, safe housing was identified, and Coral and Malcolm were ready and willing to relocate. Thanks to a “client service” fund provided through the DowntownDC BID, the outreach team purchased train and bus tickets to Mississippi and arranged for Amtrak and Greyhound personnel to guide Coral and Malcolm through the various train and bus stops along the way (which was very helpful to Coral since she was unable to hear the train conductor or bus driver announce upcoming stations). Two days later, Coral’s father called to let the team know that Coral and Malcolm had arrived safely at his home and were now catching up and reconnecting as a family.