Warner’s office is a block from Rockville Town Square, a mixed-use community with luxury apartments, shops, and restaurants. Families stroll along red brick sidewalks; kids run through a fountain in the summer.
A few miles away, tucked behind an industrial park off East Gude Drive, is an old public-housing project called David Scull Courts. Residents are mostly single mothers, some with four or five children. Some are illiterate; others are working toward a GED. Many have fast-food or custodial jobs. They pay 30 percent of their income each month in rent. That may be $50.
On a drive through the neighborhood, Warner isn’t surprised that the reporter and the translator riding with him, both of whom grew up in Montgomery County, never knew this housing project was there.
“We isolate poverty,” he says. “We don’t want to see it.”
He describes many of the people who live here as “chronically poor,” often families who’ve been on public assistance for generations: “There’s a lot of unemployment. A lot of addiction.”
This is the only housing project left in the city of Rockville; a second was demolished in 2004. It’s funded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, so residents have to be American citizens or legal immigrants. Undocumented immigrants such as Laura and Pedro don’t have access to programs that use government money.
The group that runs David Scull Courts—Rockville Housing Enterprises (RHE)—has 105 public-housing units. A third of those are single-family homes from the 1950s that look like other houses in the neighborhood.
“You wouldn’t know they’re public housing,” says executive director Ruth O’Sullivan.
RHE also has more than 400 units in its Housing Choice Voucher Program. Formerly known as Section 8, the voucher program offers financial assistance for low-income families to use toward rent anywhere in Rockville. The waiting list has been closed for two years.
At the elementary school near David Scull Courts, teachers struggle to get parents to show up for activities unless the school provides refreshments. One teacher asked students to bring in $2 for a class activity, and a few said their parents didn’t have it.
Because so many schoolkids depend on free meals, Manna Food Center delivers “smart sacks” filled with oatmeal, pasta bowls, tuna, soup, applesauce, and more to about 1,400 elementary students who might otherwise go hungry on weekends. Executive director Kim Damion has dropped off backpacks at her own children’s school in Olney.
“You know it’s somewhere,” she says, “but you don’t think it’s in your neighborhood.”
Monica Barberis-Young, a program director for a nonprofit called Interfaith Works, gave a presentation on poverty to a group of lawyers three years ago and noticed a man in the front row who wouldn’t stop fidgeting. As she talked about Tobytown, a small community of low-income residents in Potomac, she saw tears in his eyes. Eventually, he stood up.
“I’ve lived all my life in Montgomery County,” she remembers him saying. “Every morning, I get up in my $700,000 home in Potomac, use my remote to open my car, and drive to my Chevy Chase law office. I get home, and there’s my wonderful wife with my two kids and a meal that somebody has prepared for us.
“I can’t believe that all these years I’ve been driving by that place you’re describing and I’ve never stopped to look.”
At least one person digs through the trash can outside Warner’s office window every day. Men and women approach drivers at stoplights nearby. Maybe they’re homeless; maybe they’re not. But they’re a few feet away from the car window, asking for money.
“Do you want to know what I do?” Warner says. “Nothing.”
While serving as a deacon at Mount Sinai Baptist Church in DC, he used to spend the afternoon of the first Sunday of every month leading Communion services. When he took a break to eat, he was always approached by at least one person.
If you’re well enough to stand there and ask me for something, he’d think, you’re well enough to work.
“Are you hungry?” he’d say. He didn’t want to hand them $5 because he knew that wouldn’t fix anything. He wanted to start a conversation: “If you’re hungry, we can go get something to eat.”
Fewer than half said yes and walked with him to McDonald’s. “Why are you here?” he’d ask. “What’s going on?” Many told stories about addiction or mental illness and a fear of living life any other way. Most of the men who approached him said they didn’t want lunch, just the money.
Now, he says, he’s jaded.
“Normally, people are working off guilt when they hand them money,” he says. He’s heard of people giving out gift cards. “You’d be surprised how many of those get bartered: ‘I don’t want food with your $25 gift card, but I can sell it for $10 and get what I want.’ ”
Next: How you can help.