Tale of Two Capitals

Reports from Washington and Harrisburg
This story is included in these collections
Jim Forest via Flickr

Washington

It is a hot summer afternoon in Washington, but there is a good breeze coming in the windows as I write. The radio is going in the front room—soothing waltzes—and Mary is sitting in a flowered voile dress embroidering a doily. Mary is quite black and her dress is very fresh and white, and she is a picture, cool and calm. She has set the two big tables for supper, which is her share of the evening's work. She and her two sisters have also helped me to peel potatoes in the back yard. The beans have been strung and Miss Selew has seared the meat and it is now simmering away in a deep pan, covered with good brown gravy. Betty Walsh soon comes in from her classes at the Catholic University to finish up the job and serve. It is her turn, but she has been giving an examination, so everyone had jumped into the breach.

Dinner is served at 11 Poverello House on Tenth Street in Washington every night at six­ thirty, and swarms of the children of the neighborhood come in. There are three little girls living in the house and two big girls, both graduates of Francis Xavier University in New Orleans, now finishing up a year of graduate work at the Catholic University. These, with the two older women, who teach at the University, make up the family.

But everyone in the neighborhood considers the house a sort of headquarters and comes for aid of one kind or another. The doors are open when the women get home from school and the work of hospitality goes on. Bedtime is early, because everyone gets up at quarter past five to offer the Mass at the shrine at quarter of six, where they all make the responses together, and where Father Paul Hanley Furfey gives a short homily every day. It's a good way of starting the day, and the early morning is cool and fragrant as we drive over to the Shrine.

The life of the group at 11 Poverello house is dedicated to voluntary poverty. The principle is, "If we have less, everyone will have more." So on this very immediate practical idea, many are helped.

They certainly need help, the Negroes in Washington. Down the alley in back of this house—it is a two-story, box-like structure for which the rent is $75 a month-the tiny little houses with no running water, rent for $16 a month. Quite literally they are hovels. Places that would rent for $8 a month in New York cost twice as much here. And places are hard to find.

Washington is a beautiful city; the streets are tree-shaded and on the streets the houses are mostly not bad. But down the alleys live the great mass of poor, crowded in dirty, evil-smelling, little holes. There the unemployed hang out, dull and lethargic, some vicious and dissipated, as well as the greater number who struggle against terrific odds to keep themselves human, to rise above their surroundings.

 

The Blessed Martin Home

DOWN AT 1215 Seventh Street, Llewellyn Scott manages his House of Hospitality which he calls the Blessed Martin Home. The address is on Seventh Street but the entrance is down the alley. On the door hangs a crucifix. The stairs leading to the two floors above a barber shop are dark and rickety. On the walls are holy pictures and in the two sitting rooms upstairs are many more. There are beds everywhere, even in the front living room, which is filled with books and some easy chairs. In this room a very old man sleeps.

"I don't like to put him in with the others; they get to talking and arguing and make him nervous," Llewellyn said. "The other night two of them in the other sitting room were arguing about what they had been able to see out of their jail windows at Leavenworth and they were getting wild. I had to go in and shush them. I never have any trouble and nobody ever gets rough. In the three years I've been running the place, we've never had the police in."

Llewellyn Scott is a colored man who works part time for the government. Out of his salary he supports an aged mother and an invalid sister: pays their rent, which is partly covered by two roomers, and feeds them. He uses the rest of his meager resources to keep the Blessed Martin House going. During the past year he has served 17,780 meals and during the winter he put up about forty-five men a night. Today there were fifteen men sleeping in the house, as many as the beds could hold.

The place is terribly dilapidated. Paper hangs from the walls, and underneath the plaster has fallen off and the slats show. The floor slopes in every direction and you walk up and down a grade as you go from room to room. The rent is $26 a month. It is unheated, and in winter they can afford only two gallons of oil a day to try to keep it warm. Down on the first floor in what was originally a big storeroom, he has made a chapel and lined it with corrugated cardboard. There an altar is set up with a statue of the Sacred Heart. Today there were flowers in front of it, peonies and dahlias. They had spent twenty-five cents which a woman had given them (they had been praying for her sick daughter)—money which they might have spent for food. There are plenty of chairs in the chapel and four prie-dieux. Here at five-thirty every night they gather for the rosary and the litany. Most of the men who come to the place are not Catholics, but they soon learn the prayers and they all love to sing.

"The Board of Health came and made me take out some of the beds," Llewellyn said. "They wanted to know if I had a covered garbage can. I told them garbage cans were for rich folks. We have nothing to throw away. When we have nothing we don't eat. But down the street a Jewish baker gives us bread."

John J. O'Brien, [WWI] veteran, sat with us there as we talked. On the window sill a tiny black kitten washed itself with a bright pink tongue. John had just hiked down from Chester, Pennsylvania. He had been in Philadelphia, visiting the Catholic Worker house there, and he talked of the conditions in Chester. Fifteen hundred men just thrown out of work by a factory which was moving south, and a few hundred men just let off a ship. We ought to start a place there.

John started a place here in Washington recently but it only lasted two months. He started with too much rent, $45 a month, which he paid out of money he had saved from his small pension. He had visited the place in Pittsburgh and it was there he got the idea. Houses of Hospitality for men all over the country. Using all the unoccupied buildings. The men building up self-help groups, working together for mutual aid.

His place didn't last because John became terrified. Convents and monasteries started sending him their mendicants and he was not able to handle them all. He didn't know how to feed them, how to live from day to day. He didn't know that Saint Joseph is supposed to handle those things for us. He had expected that human agencies would step in and help once the things got started, and when no one came to help he got discouraged.

Last month the house closed up and he passed on the furniture to Llewellyn. Now, however, he is determined to start again, this time with a smaller place and expecting nothing. "I'll do what I can myself, and I'm not going to stop. I'm going to keep after this. I'll start now the little way."

It's a strange fight for the weather-bitten veteran, clad in dungarees, used to the roads and the men who are tramping the roads. It's a new kind of a fight, but something has to be done.

"We'll do what we can," he repeated, "and some day they'll take these unoccupied buildings and start some hospices. A place to live and something to eat now, and then we can plan on what to do. Then we can plan on getting back the land."

 

Harrisburg

ALL THE CATHOLIC Worker houses of hospitality aim to be poor. They are in the slums but somehow we never get down quite low enough. There are always a few rungs lower to go on the ladder of destitution. Besides when we get through scrubbing and painting or whitewashing, there is a decent look about the Houses which contrasts greatly with other places in the neighborhood. Llewellyn Scott's place in Washington is poverty stricken and dilapidated beyond hope of repair. The building just won't stand it. The house in Philadelphia has an outside toilet, a shanty in back, but, unlike other places in the neighborhood, at least it is not one to be shared with five other houses.

Here in Harrisburg there just isn't any toilet. You go next door to the neighbors. And there was no running water until a week ago. Most of the houses on the block have no running water. The neighbors pay one man down the street for the privilege of getting pails of water from his house.

Our place, the Blessed Martin Home, is two rooms, now scrubbed clean. There is electricity, tables and chairs, magazines to read. There is paint and linoleum on the floor, the linoleum donated out of her salary by a colored cook who works all day and then comes over to help us in the evening.

There is a faucet in the kitchen now, but no sink. We are begging for that.

The women, colored and white, who are engaging in the Catholic Worker activities among the children and families in the neighborhood, are supporting themselves and there is little money to spare. They have to advance little by little, at a snail's pace.

Due to lack of decent living facilities, no one is resident in the house permanently, but different families have been given the use of the place as a temporary lodging—two white families with thirteen and seven children respectively and one colored family with seven children.

How they got along in two rooms with no water and no toilet is hard to understand. But these families had been evicted in the quiet, orderly way Harrisburg, capital of Pennsylvania, has of doing such things. A moving van drives up to the door, the furniture is carted out and put in storage. The family is turned into the streets to roam around until some welfare agency or relief bureau takes the case up and resettles them. Then they pay for moving into their next place. In one case the children were rolled out of bed and left in their night things as the clothes and bedding were loaded on the van. Even the ice box with some food in it was taken. Neighbors sheltered the evicted family.

Our house sheltered Lucille, too. Lucille was a colored girl, twenty-three years old. She was found dying in an empty house by Mary Frecon, who is our Harrisburg representative. Lucille grew up on the streets. She and her brothers and sisters just prowled around, living as best they could. For the last few months, ravaged with syphilis and drink, Lucille had been cared for by an old colored man who lived in an abandoned shed down an alley. He gave her his cot—that and a chair were the only things he had—and he waited on her as best he could. But the flies were eating her alive, huge horse flies, and in her agony she crawled out and sought shade and relief in an abandoned house next to ours where another old colored man had taken refuge. He too took care of her—they know the uselessness of appealing to agencies—until the neighbors told Mary about it. She found her moaning and crying and trying to beat away the flies that fastened themselves on her open sores.

The few women who carry on the Catholic Worker activities here brought her into their clean little rooms and there they tried to take care of her.

Not a hospital in Harrisburg would have her and it was only after five days that Dr. Boland got an ambulance from Steelton (they could not get one at Harrisburg) and sent her to the House of the Good Shepherd at Philadelphia where they deposited her without a word and with no papers about her case. The House of the Good Shepherd is not a hospital, but it is for such girls as Lucille had been. So they took her in, nursed her, and there she died not many weeks later.

While she was lying over in the Catholic Worker house she had been baptized and anointed by Father Kirchner of St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Harrisburg is full of Lucilles and a few visits to the slums there can explain why.

After we visited the children and some of the neighbors at 1019 Seventh Street tonight, we went across the street to Mrs. Wright. She lives in a rickety two-storied house, owned by the city and completely out of repair. The banisters are falling down and the steps are unsafe. Here in the only two habitable rooms, she, her seven children, her husband, and another woman have refuge. They have three beds and they all sleep in one room. The kitchen is only big enough for the stove, the table and a few chairs.

Mrs. Wright sat there with her youngest baby, six months old, on her lap. He is thin and moans constantly. He has had pneumonia and whooping cough. One house burned down around him and the other day the whole ceiling came down upon his crib. He has lived through these six months, but from the look of him he will not live much longer, poor baby. And God knows he will be happier dead. It is hard to see the look of settled sadness on the faces of the others.

Mary Frecon and Jean Records tried to clean the place up for them. They went in with pails and mops and with cold water and plenty of soap they scrubbed and scoured. But it didn't show. The hot foul air caught at our throats as we went in, and half strangled us.

Mary Frecon, married and with a family to look after, is not able to live in the House of Hospitality at Harrisburg, but she has certainly made her home another Catholic Worker unit. Right now she has a young woman with two small babies, one and three years old, living with her. She picked them up at one of the evictions she was covering. The girl's husband has abandoned her and she has endured great hardships. There were even nights before her second baby was born that she sat out on doorsteps all night. For the last year or so she had been making her home with other poor families and working for them.

The greatest difficulty in Harrisburg is to find a home to live in, even when a family is on relief and has money to pay rent. Housing seems to be the greatest immediate problem of the city. But thanks to Mary Frecon and the Harrisburg Housing Association which she has built up (it is an interracial group) there is now $1,800,000 avail­able for housing projects and half of it is going for the Negro. Not much, but something to start on. Mary is interested in projects which will enable the residents to have land where they can raise their own food, but it will take a great fight to put that over. But she is a fighter, and we are hoping that her efforts will see to it that this new housing is for the truly poor and not just for middle class salaried workers, as it usually is.

[For more of Dorothy Day's writings from Commonweal, see our full collection.]

Dorothy Day is a cofounder of the Catholic Worker, the author of The Long Loneliness and hundreds of newspaper articles and essays. Her cause is currently being considered for beatification.

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