The homeless man of Congress

If ever there was a story highlighting two Americas, it’s today’s stunning CNN report on Charles Gladden, who works for some of the most powerful people in the country — members of the U.S. Congress.

He’s 63. He makes $11 an hour keeping the marble of the Capitol clean, and he takes home about $360 a week. And by “home” he means the subway station.

When asked about his colleagues who make the same salary, but can still afford housing, Gladden said he realizes that his predicament is exacerbated because he chooses to give money to his children. But it’s also because he suffers from diabetes, and his deteriorating health has meant missing work without pay, he said. He has even had three toes amputated because of his disease, which went untreated for a long time.

Almost no one at the Capitol had a clue Gladden was homeless, until he went public as part of a one-day strike by federal contractors demanding $15 dollars an hour, what they call a livable wage.

“If it happened to me it could happen to someone else,” he said.

“They scramble around for issues to talk about,” he said, motioning to the Senate chamber behind him.

“All they have to do is stop and ask the common person on the street … or in the building; the people bringing them their food, people sweeping and cleaning their toilet,” he said.

As he returned to work after protesting for higher wages, he said he has a message for the senators he serves every day.

“I’m an embarrassment. I don’t want to be an embarrassment to this country, the country I was born and raised in,” he said.

CNN’s story likely comes as a result of Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell, who wrote about Gladden earlier this week.

Gladden, like many low-income people, suffers from chronic illness. He was diagnosed with diabetes over a decade ago. As his vision dimmed and he developed problems in his feet and hands, he decided to find less physically taxing work. So he sought out a food-service job on Capitol Hill.

But after Congress privatized its dining services, Gladden says, his new employer, Restaurant Associates, shrank the employee head count and worsened hours. Some days, when he got roped into special events, he says he clocked in at 10 a.m. and out at 3 a.m. (Restaurant Associates declined to comment on personnel matters for this column.)

He said he hopes the situation with him and other employees of Congress changes. “But first they need to know,” he said of the public.

In the public response to the column, many readers dismissed his plight, saying he’s homeless by choice.