Retired Navy Doctor Dedicates Himself to Helping D.C. Homeless

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 27, 2009

The park's tulips were in full bloom and Charles Bowman's belly was empty when Anthony Martinez found him on a bench, folding in on himself like a well-used paper bag. Sweat pants swallowed his thinning frame, pink skin splotched his callused hands and his voice had changed in the past year.

Bowman knew he wasn't well.

"I'm scared to death what they're going to tell me about my throat," Bowman, 58, said of the doctors he was refusing to see. "There's something not right."

"How much do you smoke a day?" Martinez asked, sitting next to him.

"As much as I can get," Bowman replied.

The men laughed, as if neither was thinking cancer, although both were.

Martinez, a retired Navy doctor who spends his days serving the District's homeless, often checks in at Bowman's bench at Pennsylvania Avenue and 25th Street NW. It is one stop among many for Martinez, who on any given day tosses his medical bag over his back and bicycles toward shelters, highway underpasses and park benches. In a city with one of the nation's highest homeless rates, Martinez makes house calls on those without houses.

In winter, he treats frostbite. "I have peeled so much skin off of feet, it's unbelievable," Martinez said. "In the summertime, then you get rat bites."

For homeless men and women who seek it, medical care is readily available in the District. Unity Health Care, a nonprofit group, has clinics in shelters and stocks roving medical vans. In 2007, Unity served 11,238 homeless people in the city. But there are many who can't or won't seek help.

"The sick ones, they wouldn't go even if you called the ambulance," said Neil Avery Jr., 56, who slept on benches in Dupont Circle for years before a community group found him housing recently. "They're scared the doctor is going to say you got this or you got that. Plus, I don't blame them, they don't trust a lot of doctors."

Avery, who is chronically ill and suffered two strokes last year, met Martinez about nine years ago when the doctor treated him in the infirmary at the city's largest shelter, operated by the Community for Creative Non-Violence. The two remained close after Avery began sleeping on benches and Martinez took his work to the streets.

A few days after Martinez checked on Bowman, he visited Avery at his apartment, which the self-proclaimed "dumpster diver" had furnished with treasures from the trash. Avery, a poet, placed his latest work on a piece of discarded glass that serves as a coffee table.

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