Say hello to Marsh.

How ya doing Marsh.

“Couldn’t be better.”

Life treating you o.k.?

“Yep.”

Tell me Marsh. Where do you live?

“Sixteen-oh-one Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Across the street from the White House?

“Yep.”

So you and the Prez are neighbors?

“You might say that. But I didn’t vote for him.”

Who’d you vote for, Marsh?

“Don’t seem to remember voting. But if I did, it weren’t for Clinton.”

Marsh is Marshall Bellingham Rheinhold. He is a tall, angular man with a long, salt-and-pepper hair, a unkempt beard and piercing green eyes. Marsh used to live in Flint, Michigan, where he was a “suit” who worked at a bank. Now he lives in Lafayette Park, right across the street from Bill and Hillary. He calls them short timers. Marsh has been in Lafayette Park for years.

How long Marsh?

“Don’t rightly know. Since Reagan. How long’s that been?”

Awhile Marsh. Awhile.

Every large city has its homeless, but in Washington they are part of the landscape that every resident, tourist and official visitor comes to tolerate or hate.

Some, like Marsh, go on with their lives without bothering anyone. Marsh doesn’t panhandle (which may be Washington’s only surviving growth industry).

“If you wanna give me something man, that’s your business, but I don’t beg.”

Others aren’t as laid back as Marsh. A panhandler’s approach ranges from begging to outright demands, accompanied by insults if ignored.

“Hey, how about some spare change,” says one to a family of tourists, who shrink from his approach.

“What’s wrong?” he screams, “Ain’t you got no goddamned humanity.”

The tourists scurry away. Marsh shakes his head.

“We getting more of a bad element in the park these days. Used to be, we just lived and let the rest of life go on. Now we got some real bad `tude here. Ain’t good for the image.”

Marsh sleeps nights on a certain bench in the park, his bench. Been that way for years now. Every once in awhile, the Park Police get a burr up their butt and try to move him out, but he always comes back.

“They gotta do that for the tourists or when there’s some big shindig on the Avenue (Pennsylvania Avenue). I just go over to the shelter for a night or two. Then I come back. No big deal.”

Why not just stay at the shelter?

“Then I gotta depend on somebody. Out here, I got nobody to depend on but myself. That’s what I want.”

Marsh hit the street in the early 1980s when cutbacks in federal funding forced mental institutions to put thousands of patients on the street. They called it “mainstreaming,” placing those with mental problems back into society. Most were supposed to come back for medication and therapy as outpatients, but a lot of them didn’t.

“Just another form of dependency,” Marsh says. “I don’t need it.”

Marsh might depend on the shelter for free food, when he’s hungry, and he might sleep there from time to time or pick up some new duds, but that’s just about it.

“I have a home. It’s in the same neighborhood as the President. Bet you can’t top that.”

No Marsh, I can’t.

Marsh doesn’t really remember how old he is.

“Somewhere between 65 and 70, I think. Hey, I’m younger than what’s-his-name, Dole I think. Sometimes I think about retiring to Florida. The winters here are getting brutal.”

Each winter, when the temperatures drop to near zero, too many homeless freeze to death rather than accept the free warmth of the shelter.

Not Marsh. He takes the free room.

“Hey, when it gets cold, I go inside. My mamma, she drowned the dumb ones.”

–Doug Thompson
Washington, DC

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