Housing is something we at Swat take for granted every day. Most of us wake up in dorms where bathrooms that have been cleaned for us are right down the hall. Most of us don’t wake up each morning grateful for our bed, our window, our floor because we are used to having those things in our lives.
For Ken Martin, a vendor for Street Sense, D.C.’s prominent street newspaper sold on the city’s downtown corners, this is not the case.
After spending 17 years without a stable living situation, Ken moved into his apartment just one week prior to July 4th this past summer. He is incapable of suppressing a grin as he describes that memorable night. Standing in front of a bedroom window belonging solely to him, Ken listens with pride to the deafening cracks of fireworks erupting over the Washington Monument’s distant form and the soft tones of Joe Sample’s “There Are Many Stops Along the Way” playing fittingly in the background. As he watches, Ken cannot help but look back on the last 17 years, the last 17 Independence Days spent without a window to look out of or a roof over his head.
A diligent worker who, early in his career, helped others as a crisis intervention counselor, Ken never fathomed that homelessness could happen to him. However, in 2000, a series of bad business ventures left Ken unable to afford his home. After a few years of living on the couches of friends, he landed on the streets.
Ken remembers rotating between parks, hospital courtyards, and an all-night Starbucks; he constantly worried about where he was going to spend the night.
“You waited for shelter hotline trucks to come bring you blankets in the night, waited for the Salvation Army to bring you plastic bags you make sleeping bags out of,” he recalls.
During this time, he also suffered from a series of heart problems, resulting in three surgeries in the past year and a total of seven during the last 14 years.
“In each case, they had no place to put me after the surgery, so I was actually in the street after having surgery on my heart,” he says.
Ken was told his medical conditions qualified him for immediate placement into housing. He went through three versions of the VI-SPDAT, a form caseworkers fill out for their clients to submit to various housing providers, and applied for Section 8 public housing in January of 2003.
After 14 years of diligently updating his paperwork with no tangible progress, Ken finally got a call from a caseworker at the D.C. Office on Aging.
“I was a client of one of her colleagues at the time. She called me up and she said, ‘Mr. Martin, there’s some [housing] vouchers that are coming into this office. You qualify, and we’re not gonna let you die out there.’”
Seven weeks later, Ken obtained a voucher, and on June 20, 2017, he opened the door to his own apartment — just in time for a spectacular fireworks show.
Celebrating America’s birthday well into his 37th year of sobriety in a new apartment in Adams Morgan, Ken has a lot to be proud of.
“After a couple minutes of just looking up there and just getting into the moment, it occurred to me, this was my celebration! I was celebrating my independence too. ‘Cause, this is my independent living situation now. I’m free of all the encumbrances of other people’s ideas, other people’s ideologies, other people’s barriers. … This was my independence. And what better way to celebrate it than with fireworks.”
There are a lot of things I know do not cross my mind while I’m here at Swat. As much knowledge and information as I am trying to pummel into my head on a daily basis, there is so much that we all take for granted. Sometimes, you need to break the Swat bubble and understand what is going on outside in order to truly appreciate the fact that we are here.