In the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, 63-year-old Charles Gladden works alongside some of the nation’s most powerful people. For eight years, he has greeted senators, staffers and lobbyists in the hallways and the cafeteria, at exclusive banquets and special functions. He reflects fondly on some of the warmer colleagues who he says got the boot too soon.
But unbeknown to any of these bigwigs, or even to his employer, Gladden is homeless. He works in the Senate cafeteria, and he has not had a fixed address for the past five years.
The reasons are complicated. He said he has made decisions he regrets — not least leaving George Washington University, where he’d been studying fine arts on a scholarship. (Truancy and trouble with the law landed him in a juvenile institution as a teenager; he got the scholarship after winning second place in an art show.) After dropping out, he spent years in low-paying jobs: painting houses, laying bricks, delivering food.
Today he gives much of his meager paycheck to his three daughters and their grandchildren, who have also struggled to find steady housing and employment. He says that he needs the money less than they do, that he knows how to brave “the elements” and make good use of food pantries and free health clinics. He has, after all, been homeless intermittently over two decades. He has always managed.
“I want to provide for them,” he says of his family, “not burden them.”
Gladden also, of course, does not make very much money.
For a week’s work at the Senate cafeteria — sweeping floors, mopping bathrooms, cleaning dishes, composting leftovers, transporting laundry — he says his take-home pay is about $360. And while he takes enormous pride in serving the country’s public servants, he is not sure these public servants are returning the favor.
“Our lawmakers, they don’t even realize what’s going on right beneath their feet,” he says. “They don’t have a clue.”