Encounter with a homeless man touches a Virginia Starbucks manager

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect location for the Starbucks where Diana Kelly met the man who inspired her nonprofit. It was in the city of Fredericksburg. This version has been corrected.

Petula Dvorak
Columnist June 18, 2012

It wasn’t hard to miss Dominic, amid the sleek displays of coffee mugs and bags of Veranda Blend beans at the Starbucks in Fredericksburg. He was wearing a pair of dirty cutoff sweatpants and no coat on a cold winter night.

“Where could he be coming from?” wondered Diana Kelly, 54, a regional manager checking on her store. She’d never encountered a homeless person in this part of suburban Virginia before.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

She bought him a hot chocolate and asked where he was staying.

“In the woods,” Dominic told her. “I’m staying in the woods.”

Since then, Kelly, who wears Starbucks earrings and a glittery, rhinestone Starbucks belt buckle and drives an immaculate, black-cherry-colored SUV, has spent a lot of time in those woods.

“Twenty-two years here and I never, ever imagined there are encampments in these woods, right behind places I shop,” she says as we drive to one of the spots.

A mother of two, grandmother of three and regional manager of 15 Starbucks stores, Kelly usually has her hands too full to give too much time to other causes.

But the man in a hoodie and slip-on shoes in January touched her. And she realized that something was changing in the once-small town where she’d moved two decades earlier to escape city life in Old Town Alexandria.

She found Dominic, then Wanda, then David Turner and dozens of others in the woods. And with a couple of her store managers and some employees, she began visiting them.

She tried to figure out the mental ills that prompted Dominic to live outside, tried to find the story of his life in all the delusions and mumbling and persistent arm-picking. Pick, pick, pick at his skin. “Do you have medication, Dominic?” she asked.

Kelly is still new at this and is still coming to grips with the depressing, crippling cycle of addiction and mental illness that is at the root of many cases of long-term homelessness.

She knows homeless folks don’t always inspire much sympathy from others. Fredericksburg went into a small furor last summer after the city police department issued a report about the homeless population and their share of the area’s crimes.

Police estimated that about 300 people have no fixed address in the area and that they are responsible for about 10 percent of the 3,000 crimes committed in this quiet exurb. (The main group that works with the homeless of Fredericksburg said the number of people living in shelters and on the street that they counted during their annual survey is closer to 200.)

The City Council called for hearings and solutions. Some residents demanded that all the homeless be rounded up and jailed. The leaders at Micah Ministries, a Christian outreach program that provides social services, asked for calm and understanding.

Kelly did her part. She told customers who would listen about the scope of the problem, and they would shake their heads in disbelief as they bought their $5 drinks.

Her stores began leaving a bin by the register to collect hotel toiletries, new socks, money. And every couple of weeks, she and other Starbucks employees would make packages to deliver to the homeless.

“And those first few months, I’d be coming back to my car crying,” she said.

Last week, she took me to see David, who’s been living behind a gas station and mini-mart for about five years in what looks like a beaver lodge. Kelly and her assistance team that day — store managers Mary Hamm and Stephanie Madison along with assistant manager Bryan Raymond — know exactly which hidden opening in the stand of trees gets you to the twisty path to David Turner’s hideout.

He climbs out of his makeshift home in stocking feet, running his hands through his hair.

He shows them the modifications that he’s already made on a bike they brought him this month — he welded on exhaust pipes and hubcaps. Then he brings out his art to show them — a dozen or so awkward and colorful drawings of drag racers and motorcycles on dirty, tattered paper.

“I could make real money if I come down in my price on these,” he explains to them. “Right now I’m charging $4 million for each piece. If I come down a little, I’ll make some money. Yeah. Yup.”

He tells me he went to the U.S. Air Force Academy, then Harvard and Yale. “I basically have the highest IQ of anyone in the history of education,” he says.

I look over and see the pain on Kelly’s face.

David, who moved into the woods about the time his mother died, thanks them for the supplies — toothpaste, toilet paper, water, hand balm, instant coffee.

“He hadn’t shown us the art before,” Kelly says. “Breaks my heart.”

Their little volunteer effort is now a full-fledged nonprofit. A customer who is a lawyer donated all the work to make it official. Someone else helped them create a logo and T-shirts. They call it Project Dominic.

They bring hundreds of supply bags into the woods and, with each delivery, try to talk the folks into going to one of the city’s outreach centers for counseling, medical care and shelter. They are helping no more than 300 people. And no, they aren’t solving their problems by finding them homes.

But for all the customers who come in to Starbucks and buy Ethiopian Fair Trade coffee or water to pay for village wells or mugs to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS, Kelly has provided a cause that’s a little closer to home.

Just in the woods, back there, behind the Wal-Mart and the Target and the other places where you shop.

To read Petula Dvorak’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.
com/dvorak
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