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28 Jan, 2010 21:47

The streets of Washington: Politics by day, Poverty by night

During the day, the streets of Washington, DC are filled with the power brokers, lawmakers, and professionals who make the nation's capitol tick. But by night the city changes, and you might be surprised who takes over.

 To most of the world, Washington D.C. means government, U.S. history, even art. But for "Grate Patrol" driver Nick Douglas, who drives around feeding the homeless, the landmarks are his roadmap. At night monuments lead the way not to people in power, but to the people in poverty.

When the politicians have gone to bed, it's the faces of the homeless that emerge from the historic columns. And among these fancy buildings, they stake out the grates, where heat wafts up from the subway. Each has his own story. 

"I took my bags and came down to International Square and met some people that showed me the ropes on the street, and I survived,"said Bill Whitner, a transient in the U.S. Capitol.

On the streets, these impoverished people don't count on their lawmakers for help.

“Too often government gives with the one hand and takes with the other hand,” said Paula Dyan, homeless outreach coordinator for the Salvation Army, who operate the "Grate Patrol."

But they take Nick and his crew up on what the "Grate Patrol" has to offer, a hot meal and hot chocolate.”

And they have their own ideas about Washington politics.

"Healthcare?! I don't care about healthcare," said a homeless man. "I don't care about Obama!"

“Other countries have it, it’s universal, this country doesn’t have it," said James Burton, a transient talking about government-run healthcare. Healthcare reform has been U.S. President Obama's push during his first year in office. "You have people like me, sleeping under the bridge. Now I get sick under that bridge, I’m dead” 

Douglas doesn't care much for politics either. But he does care about the reality he's seen on the streets for the last 12 years, where faces keep coming, shelters are closing their doors and he sees government help going to other countries.

“I can understand [the government] trying to help Haiti and all that, but it’s happening right there in your city," Douglas said. "So why are you not trying to help the people in your city?"

By day on one street just blocks from the White House, the streets are filled with power brokers, lawmakers, professionals working in the nation’s capital. But by night this is where the homeless bed down, the city changes, and it becomes their turf. Regulars flock to this spot for the overhead shelter, and they abide by the rules of the street: down after 9 p.m., out by 5 a.m.

“The thing about D.C. is you have this vast richness but you also have this vast poverty,” said Dyan.

And they have their own relationship with the DC elite.

“Ya, the night belongs to us," said Whitner, chuckling. "The day belongs to them the night belongs to us.”

And in the U.S. Capitol where people clamor for power, that ain't bad.