The homeless man named Joe slouched in his chair as Naaman Foster towered over him and tried to persuade him to stick with it.
"You can't run forever," said Foster, director of Downtown Services Center, a unique project of the Downtown Business Improvement District. Joe was at D.C. General Hospital a few hours earlier, about to enter a detoxification program. But when he asked for something to eat and a hospital worker said he seemed more interested in food than detox, Joe felt insulted and walked out.
"If you don't go back, all those people who say you are no good win," Foster argued.
Joe, a crack cocaine addict who had missed his court date on drug charges and hadn't been seeing his probation officer, did not respond. Foster called over Andre Jackson, who has been homeless and through detox and now volunteers at the center. Foster told Joe that Jackson would go with him and stay with him.
"We all like you. We'd like to see your life work out," said Foster, a charismatic bear of a man. He stuck out an enormous hand and asked, "Do we have a deal?"
"I'll shake your hand," Joe said, "but I don't know."
Foster kept trying. It's all part of his job, part of what the center's about--moving the homeless off the street by offering paths to a better life.
Joe is among about 400 homeless who come each morning to this church hall on the corner of 10th and G streets NW for eggs, toast, sausage, bacon, grits, pancakes, fruit cup, juice. But the business executives and developers who conceived the Downtown Services Center have more in mind than a daily meal.
It's an unusual mission for the Downtown Business Improvement District. Like other BIDs across the country, the group imposes a private tax on each business in the area to beautify the neighborhood, market it, make it more profitable. But this BID has invested money--and its considerable clout--in doing something more.
The Downtown BID is the only one in the country to operate a social services project, says Joseph Sternlieb, the BID's deputy director. He hopes others will copy the idea. "It's the right thing to do, and it's working," he said.
The act of enlightened self-interest has won over skeptical homeless advocates who initially suspected that the MBAs and CPAs were plotting merely to sweep the homeless out of sight, out of mind.
More than a dozen nonprofit organizations often hostile to business and development interests have set up shop in the center at First Congregational Church. A half-dozen city agencies, under orders by Mayor Anthony A. Williams, also operate from the site. The BID is spending $325,000 annually on the center and a related outreach program on the streets.
The center opened in June while the site was being renovated and has been fully operational since September. Groups at the center have placed 50 clients in jobs and 60 in job training. About 50 clients have been persuaded to leave the streets and find a measure of refuge in shelters, and 113 homeless people with hard-core drug and alcohol problems have completed detox and moved into residential treatment centers.
"That's more than I was able to do in 10 years before," said the Rev. Linda Kaufman, a longtime advocate for the homeless who coordinates the BID's homeless programs. The infamous red tape of the city bureaucracy, she said, usually stymies the best efforts of social workers who may struggle for years to persuade someone to accept treatment, only to find that a place in detox is unavailable.
"To get into detox, you always had to show up at D.C. General, drunk or high, between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., and even then you might not get in," Kaufman said. But the center has joined with city detox officials to be able to place clients the same day, with a telephone call.
An old woman in sandals shuffles in, inch-deep cracks in her crusted heels. Homeless transvestites cluster at one table. A middle-aged woman with bows in her hair covers her eyes as she babbles. She has refused to leave the streets for a free apartment because if she lived inside, people could come in and get her.
Nearly half of the downtown homeless are seriously mentally ill, according to various surveys. Nearly a third are drug and alcohol abusers, Kaufman said, while another 10 percent to 15 percent are both mentally ill and addicted.
Disoriented people who've lost their way, and their motivation, often fail to take advantage of the array of public and nonprofit services available. Frequently they must navigate not only red tape but also the entire city, traveling from a soup kitchen in one part of town to mental health treatment in another corner, job services in another, housing in yet another. The center puts all the services at the breakfast table.
The program is also identifying homeless wanderers who can be sent back home for help. Twenty percent to 25 percent of the downtown homeless, Kaufman estimates, are mentally ill people who came to the nation's capital to ask the CIA to remove a brain implant or a camera in their eyes, to tell the president something or to address the Supreme Court.
"Typically they board a bus the first of the month, after they get their disability check," Kaufman said. "They get lost, and robbed, run out of medicine and deteriorate quickly."
Recently, she saw a man, with open sores and a D.C. jail identification band on his wrist, pawing through garbage looking for food. He mumbled incoherently, but she caught the words "South Carolina."
With a little detective work, Kaufman, with a caseworker and the pastor of a nearby church, tracked down a South Carolina pastor who said people back home had been looking for the man and would meet him at the bus station.
"We're sending two or three people a month back home, when they have a network of services awaiting them," Kaufman said. The BID has a $15,000 fund for bus tickets and unusual requests that government-financed programs won't cover.
In one recent case, New Hope Ministries, which works from the center, found housing for a homeless man, but he said he didn't want to move in directly from the street. The BID spent $150 for a night's hotel stay, so the man could walk into his new home clean, rested, feeling right.
At the center are a psychiatric nurse, who can refer to a psychologist and a psychiatrist who work upstairs, and a medical clinic, where a doctor and assistant from Unity Healthcare, a nonprofit group, offer care two days a week.
This morning, Muhmoud Rashid, from Ready, Willing and Able, arrived as breakfast was ending. His program offers a paid job and a place to live to any homeless person who stays clean and sober for 30 days. The clients have to save part of their wages, and when they are ready to move out on their own, the program will match the money.
Only four people signed up for the presentation but several dozen moved in to listen.
Sometimes the atmosphere can be a little tense. Foster said he trains his mostly volunteer staff to understand that many people who come are on the edge.
"A nasty comment to us is not intended for us--it's a statement about how life is going for them," he said.
Former and current clients volunteer to help keep the peace. A man named Tom, who like many of the other clients does not want his last name used, calls out numbers to let people know it is their turn for lunch. The center arranged for Tom to move into a shelter and helped him get a job as a night office cleaner. He shows up every morning to volunteer.
"It keeps me focused," he said.
Foster says he can only give "a gut guess," but he figures about 20 percent of the center's visitors could become upstanding citizens and self-sufficient taxpayers in short order.
"They're disenchanted. The system has bummed them out," he said. "They self-medicate. Something happened to put them on a downward spiral. They get clean and sober, dress a certain way, and they're good to go."
Another 10 percent or so are deeply and chronically troubled, he believes: "Our greatest achievement would be getting them into a supportive, sheltered environment."
Which leaves the majority--a group, Foster thinks, that "has a good chance with real, in-depth services."
When Joe said he didn't know whether he could agree to return to detox, Foster summoned the cook, Yolanda Way, and one of her volunteer assistants. Joe was the only one seated. He was surrounded.
"I remember being where you are," the assistant said. "You can do it."
Joe argued he'd go back to treatment sometime, but Foster reminded him he may not get the chance. Any night, he said, police could round him and others up. He needs to act now. The volunteers chimed in.
All of them reached their hands out toward Joe for him to shake them. It was going nowhere.
"You still got your good looks. Let's make the move while you still got something to show the ladies," Foster begged. "Do it for me."
"I'll do it later," Joe said.
Foster backed off, leaving Way and the two volunteers with Joe. There was a quiet moment. Then, in an oddly intimate gesture, Joe reached up and gently fingered the bundle of keys hanging from Way's hand.
"They say I should go back over there," Joe said.
"I'll do anything to help you," Way responded.
And then, without a word being said, it became clear Joe had agreed. He would try again.
Foster returned for a handshake, and the two men embraced.