Homeless woman dies near HUD, becoming symbol

December 01, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Two days before Thanksgiving, Yetta M. Adams arrived a half-hour past curfew at the Calvary homeless shelter here, losing her claim to one of its 28 beds that had been her nighttime refuge for the past month and a half.

Choosing to forgo the "hypothermia van" that takes the overflow to a city-run trailer site, the 43-year-old woman did what she had done on and off for the past 11 years. She started sleeping on the streets.

And Monday morning, with all her worldly possessions beside her -- four shopping bags that held clothes, a Walkman and cassettes and medication for severe diabetes -- she was found dead, slumped on a bench at a bus stop in a place that would turn her into a national symbol instead of just another anonymous homeless person.

She had spent her last night, in temperatures that nudged only slightly above freezing, across the street from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency that deals with the plight of the nation's homeless.

Her death quickly became national news and was seized on by HUD's top officials.

HUD Secretary Henry G. Cisneros, who just months ago unveiled a $20 million plan for Washington as a national model for addressing homelessness, said the tragedy emphasized the importance of funding homeless programs throughout the country.

"We, as a nation, can no longer afford to be callous toward the homeless," said Mr. Cisneros, who is asking Congress to increase federal funding for the homeless from $823 million to $1.5 billion to include more services to treat alcoholism, drug abuse and mental illness.

He said Ms. Adams' death affected him and his staff in a very personal way.

"As soon as I heard, I walked across the street to try and learn more about this person and the circumstances surrounding her death," Mr. Cisneros said in a statement. "I asked one of the bystanders how this person died and she replied, 'Sometimes they just die of sheer exhaustion.' "

Indeed, the director of a women's center who's known Ms. Adams for a decade, said yesterday, "She just kinda gave up."

Ms. Adams apparently died of natural causes, police said yesterday, but the D.C. medical examiner's office will determine the precise cause of death.

Case workers who have known Ms. Adams said that she suffered from diabetes but sometimes failed to comply with instructions regarding her insulin and sometimes abused her medications.

The mother of two boys and a girl -- the youngest of whom is 17 -- also suffered from depression, for which she was receiving occasional treatment at Howard University Hospital's outpatient clinic, said those close to her.

It was the emotional problems -- depression and feelings of worthlessness -- that led to her losing her way in 1982, when she first entered the shelter system, too disabled to work and having lost her youngest son to a foster home.

In many ways, Ms. Adams was typical of the up to 10,000 men, women and children who are homeless in Washington.

Since 1982, she had moved into various public and group housing programs, only to land back at emergency shelters -- or on the streets -- after some time.

"Her story is very similar to a lot of stories," said Michele May, case manager at Calvary Shelter. "She would have periods of stability and then periods of instability where we would try to get her back on the right track."

She was not typical, however, of those who spend night after night on the streets, since she had availed herself of numerous public and private programs for the homeless in the city, often paying modest rents from the roughly $450 she received each month in Social Security.

"She'd been through all the housing systems in the city," said Ms. May.

In fact, those who knew Ms. Adams said she had every opportunity to establish a stable, decent life -- a day center where she received job counseling, meals and support -- but couldn't seem to get on her feet.

Asked what would have helped Ms. Adams, Mary Ann Luby, executive director of Rachel's Women's Center, who had counseled Ms. Adams since 1983, was at a loss. "That's a very good question," she said. "She had a lot of services. She had a lot of people who cared about her very much."

After several years in and out of emergency shelters, Ms. Adams had settled into a fairly stable life in 1985, sharing with four other women a group home run by Housing Opportunities for Women, a nonprofit organization that provides permanent affordable housing for formerly homeless women.

She stayed for seven years. But after some friction with a housemate whom she suspected of stealing from her, she became hostile and was evicted last year, case workers said.

Since that time, Ms. Adams, who is said to have a brother and sisters in the D.C. area, sometimes stayed with her older son and sometimes returned to life in emergency shelters.

For the last decade, said Ms. Luby, Ms. Adams' only hope and dream was "to get her [youngest] son back."

Monday morning, an outreach worker from the Women's Center -- who had recently spotted Ms. Adams around the heat grates near HUD and wanted to bring her in from the cold -- discovered NTC her lifeless body at the bus stop.

Having trouble finding anyone who would stop and help, she asked the driver of the first Metro bus that came by to call an ambulance.

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