Woman's Death Outside Shelter Stirs Questions
Friends Say She Was Rejected Because of AIDS Complications; City Disputes Account
By Petula Dvorak and Yamiche Alcindor
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Renee Paige died waiting.
She sat on the green, metal bench outside a D.C. homeless shelter last week, waiting for permanent housing, waiting for the bad spells of her full-blown AIDS to pass, waiting for the rain to stop and waiting for a spot in the shelter, her friends said.
She died in the evening June 7, sitting up on her bench outside the nonprofit Community for Creative Non-Violence, at Second and D streets NW.
Paige, 50, was buried yesterday after dozens of her friends and family members heard her eulogized at True Gospel Tabernacle Baptist Church in Southeast Washington. Many remembered her as a giving person who was a holiday bell ringer for the Salvation Army.
Keena Stewart, 52, met Paige 15 years ago while they lived in the same apartment complex. She said Paige often cooked up large pots of soup and invited neighbors to join her for dinner. For fun, Paige rearranged the furniture and danced around the living room to her favorite songs.
"She was used to having her own," Stewart said. Before her illness stopped her from working, Paige provided for herself and her two daughters, Tamisha and Ashley.
Eric Sheptock, an advocate for the homeless, said Paige's death should illustrate the problems facing the city's homeless. "She got failed by the system," he said.
Accounts varied of how she came to be outside a shelter the night she died.
"They kicked her out of the shelter. They put her out because she couldn't keep herself clean, her bowels and so forth, because of her AIDS," said Tamela Bowens, 46, a friend of Paige's who helped arrange a memorial service for Paige on June 8.
"Now that the pain is over, she's in a better place. She's warm now," one of the homeless women who shared a bench with Paige said at the makeshift service last week.
Another woman added: "And dry."
According to the data on shelter availability compiled nightly by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, the 100 beds available in emergency shelters for women were all filled the night of June 7, when Paige died.
But city officials said she wasn't kicked out of the shelter. "On this particular night, she just decided to sleep outside," said Mafara Hobson, spokeswoman for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).
"Apparently, when the weather is nice, there is a drop in shelter check-ins."
But three weeks before she died, in Street Sense, the newspaper written primarily by homeless people about homeless issues, Paige said she had been without a place to stay even when the weather wasn't so nice.
"I was out in the rain last night. I have full blown AIDS. I just got out of the hospital," Paige told Street Sense, in a story about the city's spending on services for the homeless.
Her wolf calls of "Ahh-ooo" to passersby, the bits of food and furtive nips of drink she shared with her fellow sidewalk denizens, and her relentless thumbing through the popular self-help book "The Seat of the Soul" became a common sight at the corner, where she camped out, rain or shine, for weeks, friends said.
The interim deputy director of the shelter, Bernard Robinson, said he is "done talking about" Paige.
Robinson said he is frustrated that Paige's friends said she was turned away from the shelter because of her illness. "We have people with AIDS here right now," he said.
But he would not elaborate on the reasons Paige was sitting outside on a bench, with a canopy of several umbrellas and tarps covering her through the late spring's heaviest rains.
Paige was quite vocal about her medical condition and her frustration with not getting shelter when she spoke up at a community meeting in April about emergency shelters, said Mary Ann Luby, with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
She was hospitalized twice for pneumonia before her death, Luby said.
Last year, Stewart visited Paige in the hospital.
"I grabbed her and told her everything would be okay," she said.