A local life: He lived on the streets, but died in a home

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 16, 2010; 2:29 PM

Just as he'd wished, Gregory Hart stopped breathing the other night in his own bed in his own apartment. His quiet death was an achievement of sorts, because for the great majority of his adult life, Mr. Hart had lived in a place where life was a ceaseless assault.

Until three years ago, Mr. Hart lived in Washington's alleys. He slept behind Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street NW, next to a garbage can. He raised rats in a box. His friends were a dog named Bam Bam and a cat called Little Bam Bam.

Mr. Hart was a mainstay of Washington's homeless population, a heavy drinker and drug abuser who never attended regular school and didn't learn to read or write until he was an adult. For decades, he drifted in a haze on the city's streets, in bad health, out of his mind. People called him "retard" and directed him to "get a job."

Then, just before Christmas three years ago, Mr. Hart was given something he'd always dreamed about: a place of his own. Pathways to Housing, a nonprofit that has pushed the D.C. government and others around the country toward a new approach to the chronically homeless, gave Mr. Hart an apartment in the Deanwood section of Northeast.

Unlike most public programs for the homeless, this one did not require people coming off the street to show that they had given up alcohol and drugs. The idea was to save the taxpayers a bundle - and give people a decent place to live - by getting the homeless indoors and getting them the medical care, drug treatment, Social Security payments and other assistance that would end up being vastly cheaper than letting them fall into one crisis after another on the streets.

Mr. Hart, one of about 300 homeless people in Washington who Pathways has moved into apartments, mainly stayed in his home and watched TV, said Linda Kaufman, who runs the Pathways operation in the District. "He kept his apartment really well; the place was beautiful," she said. More than 87 percent of those Pathways has taken off D.C. streets remain in subsidized housing, Kaufman said.

The Fenty administration adopted Pathway's "Housing First" philosophy and has moved about 1,000 of the city's 6,000 homeless people into apartments.

Mr. Hart, who had heard voices for as long as he could remember, remained a drinker until the final months of his life, and it was the drinking that led directly to the liver disease that killed him Oct. 8 at 59, Kaufman said.

Mr. Hart, who grew up at the Sursum Corda project off North Capitol Street, was one of nine children, several of whom were shot to death or killed themselves, he said. He was not in regular contact with any relatives.

When Mr. Hart said that he didn't want to die in a hospital, but rather in his own bed, the health aides and Pathways administrators who worked with him came to be with him in his final days.

Kaufman was there at the end. "There weren't any heroic measures," she said. "Gregory saved the system, I don't know, at least $100,000 by choosing not to go to the hospital. It was very dignified and very simple. At 3 a.m., his breathing slowed, and at 3:30, he stopped breathing."

"I prayed for him," said Kaufman, who is also an Episcopal priest, "and commended his spirit to God."

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