The men of McKenna House were still fast asleep when Robert Moens arose at 4:30 one morning, showered and shaved, slipped on a pair of jeans, a work shirt and his leather jacket and tiptoed downstairs for the start of what he expected to be one of the best days of his life.
He was to begin work at 7 o'clock for a Bethesda firm called No Con Recon, which cleaned and reconditioned used cars. It was the first steady job he had been able to find in several years, and Moens set out in the cool predawn air knowing exactly what he had to do to get there: catch a crosstown bus at 16th and U Streets NW and transfer to another bus at Dupont Circle that would carry him to Bethesda.
Everyone at McKenna House was pulling for him, and the last thing he wanted to do was let them down. But fate that morning was not kind.
First the U Street bus passed him by, the driver perhaps unaccustomed to picking up anyone there for that run. Moens waited a half-hour for another bus, but when it never showed he decided to walk to Dupont Circle. By the time he got there it was nearly 6:30, so he hailed a cab, arriving at work sweating and out of breath, barely on time. There, the comedy of errors continued.
So set was Moens to make good on the job that he was overcome by a nervousness that made his stomach ache. His boss told him to clean the interior of one car, but while wiping the dashboard he accidentally knocked the keys down an air vent.
Mistakes can happen, his boss reassured him. He told Moens to start work on another car while he attempted to retrieve the keys.
Moens' anxiety was getting worse. He tried to unlock the car door, but found the lock was jammed. He decided to try to force it, using his trembling hands to turn the key. The key must have been corroded. It snapped in half. He spent the next hour having a new key made at a shop up the block. It cost him 75 cents.
When he returned he was told to clean the interior of a third car and, despite the growing pain in his stomach, this time things went well. He vacuumed, shampooed and cleaned -- the Chevy looked as good as new.
But as the engine was started and the inside heat switched on to dry the floor and upholstery, Moens noticed a streak on the windshield. He couldn't bear the thought of an unfinished job, so he grabbed a bottle of Windex, hopped inside the car and started wiping away the streak. Then his elbow hit the steering wheel gearshift, throwing the car into reverse.
When Moens was finally able to stop it, the driver's side door had been bent in half after crashing into the side wall of the garage. The loud groan of the impact sounded to Moens like the howl of a sick dog.
In only three hours he was gone.
The bus ride back to McKenna House felt like one of the longest journeys of his life, Moens said later. He stared out the window, his thoughts filled with the mishaps of the morning, his eyes glistening with tears.
He remembered how happy the men of McKenna House were for him when he told them he had gotten the job. "Wayta go, Robert!" Friar Jack Pfannenstiel had exclaimed, with a hearty pat on his shoulder. "Not bad, for a wimp," his pal, Bryan Pleasant, had said.
And for a moment, unable to bear the prospect of facing their disappointment, he thought seriously about moving out of McKenna House and returning to the streets. He felt he didn't deserve to live there anymore.
But Moens did go back and was surprised to find how reassuring everyone was. Friar Jack didn't seem disappointed at all. He told him to forget about it. Another job would soon come his way, he said. The other men laughed as he recounted his misadventure, but they were laughing with him, not at him.
For a few days Moens seemed to rebound, joking and playing chess again, and going over the want ads to search for another job. Then, like a summer storm front, his depression set in with a vengeance.
By day, he kept to his room like a trapped animal, perched atop a corner of the bed with his knees drawn up and a wide-brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes. At night, he would not sleep. He became a brooding sentinel of darkness in the Park Road row house, pacing the linoleum floors until daybreak in a slow and melancholy shuffle. Over a period of two weeks he withdrew entirely from the other men. He stopped bathing. He let his beard grow. Eventually, he stopped changing his clothes.
Then, at 2 a.m. on April 4, he crept to a second-floor bathroom where, with a bottle of pills in hand he attempted to find a final release.
Robert Emil Moens had one broken marriage, two children and a litany of personal failures behind him. He had little money and even less in the way of hope. But Friar Jack, Brother Chris Jensen and the other men of McKenna House knew that the reasons for his suicide attempt extended even deeper than that. They understood that Moens' torment was connected as well to a tragic and much more brutal incident in his past.
It was summed up in a newspaper story Moens photocopied one morning last spring at the Library of Congress. The story, dated February 15, 1974, was printed on the front page of his hometown newspaper, The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch. The headline appeared in bold letters above a picture of a 15-year-old boy seated in the rear of a police car, his head slightly lowered, his hair parted evenly on the left and his eyes frozen in a somber gaze.
It read: "Teenager Charged in Mother's Slaying." The Perfect Candidate
When 15 homeless men left the streets of Washington to take part in the McKenna House experiment, they were straddling two worlds that couldn't have been more dissimilar.
On one side of them were the streets, soup lines and flophouses of Washington, an ugly world fraught with immediate and daily questions of survival. But on the other side was McKenna House, where those questions no longer mattered. From shelter to food to clothing, every primary human need was implicitly granted. Suddenly, the men had the simple, yet unaccustomed luxury of time. And, for a few of them, that luxury led to darker and more dangerous corridors of the mind and soul.
"A lot of these guys are confronting themselves for the first time," said Friar Jack. "And some of them don't like what they see."
As the project entered the summer and fall, the priest experienced a sobering loss of innocence. He began to see in a more mature way that social rehabilitation for several of the men had to consist of something more than food, shelter and work. Just as homelessness itself wasn't a purely economic phenomenon, the solutions to homelessness couldn't be applied solely in economic ways. "When you see it as a social, emotional and psychological issue," Friar Jack said, "the answers become much more complex . . . "
The men of McKenna House knew about Moens' past. Friar Jack and the other candidates understood the fact of his crime, a few intimates having been told by Moens himself. But they later admitted that they never adequately considered the psychological implications until the night of Moens' act of desperation.
"It's easy enough to say it. He killed his mother," Friar Steve said. "But to think about it. . . . "
In truth, the clerics initially had little reason to regret Moens' participation in the experiment. He appeared the perfect candidate, a young fellow of wit and gentle disposition who, though dirty, unshaven and penniless, expressed a fervent resolve to find work. He was the first of all the men to be chosen.
With a bony build, wide brown eyes and thick layers of long grimy hair, Moens arrived at McKenna House appearing very much like a refugee from a secret war. His wardrobe only enhanced the impression, it consisting of a set of scruffy, worn-out loafers, a woolen stocking cap full of dust and lint, dirty polyester trousers and a wrinkled green jacket so frayed and tattered in spots that the cotton stuffing hung out.
Once he moved in, however, Moens went about his rehabilitation with an almost evangelical earnestness, showering, shaving and exchanging his old duds for a pair of shiny wingtips, creased khaki trousers and a dashing leather jacket. He maintained his love affair with the game of chess, waging as many as a dozen duels a night with his roommate, Bryan Pleasant, while compiling an impressive collection of 24 chess books whose titles included "How to Win Chess Endings," "The Benko Gambit," and "Son of Sorrow: The Modern Benoni."
He found considerable contentment those early days at McKenna House in very basic things, and enjoyed being ribbed just as much as he enjoyed ribbing others, taking particular delight in Pleasant's favorite nickname for him, "Jaws," which was coined because of Moens ravenous and insatiable appetite for cheeseburgers.
But two weeks after the job disaster, his torment erupted when he went to the bathroom, grabbed a bottle of aspirin, and turned on the cold water in the sink. Using one hand to cup the water and the other to hold the aspirin, he swallowed all the tablets in the container, which numbered about 50.
Hyperventilating, his insides throbbing with pain, Moens soon went downstairs and knocked on Friar Jack's door. "I'm sick, Jack," he said, his voice quaking, as the priest wiped the sleep from his eyes. "I'm doin' real bad."
Friar Jack took Moens to the emergency room of Providence Hospital, where Moens was given medicine that induced him to vomit. At about 6 a.m., after the priest had returned to bed, he was awakened again, this time by a nurse who wanted to know if Moens had any medical insurance.
Friar Jack replied that Moens was not insured. He said Moens was a homeless and jobless man who was unable to obtain Medicaid insurance because he didn't have any valid identification. The nurse said Moens seemed to be doing better and likely would be transferred to a mental health facility once a psychiatrist examined him.
Moens stayed at Providence for four days, during which time he was examined once by a psychiatrist. The next Monday, after the physician certified him mentally and emotionally sound, a danger to neither himself nor society, Moens returned to McKenna House just as depressed as the day he left.
Friar Jack didn't know what to do. "What's it take for somebody to get help?" he snapped in frustration and anger.
Brother Chris seemed the most worried of all. "If he's suicidal," he said, his eyes wincing with fear, "there's nothing we can do about it. . . . "
But they tried. Friar Jack got Moens to send away for his birth certificate and to continue his pursuit for work. Brother Chris, meantime, schooled himself in the availability of mental health services for the poor, staying on the phone for hours with officials of Associated Catholic Charities and residential treatment facilities, including St. Elizabeths Hospital.
Several weeks later, on May 16, Moens told Friar Jack he needed to be alone and that it might be better for everyone if he just left McKenna House for a while.
Friar Jack reluctantly agreed, saying he'd visit him soon.
With that, Moens packed his belongings and moved out, wandering down 16th Street to a newspaper shack on the corner of 18th and G Streets NW that had been his home off and on for two years. Return to Familiar Turf
The shack was constructed of wooden planks painted dark brown and was perched atop four small wheels made of iron. It was only five feet high, three feet wide and nine feet long. It stood several blocks west of the White House on the edge of a sidewalk in front of the beige stone facade of the World Bank building.
For two years Moens had sold newspapers there, earning between $10 and $20 a day. It was his one connection to the world, a five-hour period between 6 and 11 a.m. when he said he felt useful. He accepted the quarters, dimes and nickels of strangers and gave them a smile and news of the day in return.
He was very friendly with the strangers and knew their tastes. There was the tall lawyer in dark glasses who always wanted The New York Times. Sometimes he showed up in a Cadillac and just tooted his horn. Whenever Moens walked over to give him the paper, he never failed to tip him an extra quarter.
There was the fat woman with an even fatter briefcase who liked The Daily News and the guys at the World Bank who loved The New York Post.
None of these people knew much about Moens -- not even his name. They certainly didn't know he actually lived there.
The little shack smelled of mildew and was crammed with things. A wooden bench barely a foot wide, covered with a dirty sheet and two blankets, served as both a chair and bed. There was a portable radio inside along with a Sterno stove, 14 empty milk cartons, two pots, two brooms, an oil lantern and tools.
There were two ashtrays, a water basin, coffee, oatmeal and cans of soup. Sugar, crackers, salt, ketchup, mustard and an assortment of other foods were stacked atop a welcome mat that doubled as a rug.
He had one plastic jug to urinate into and another to sip water from. His clothes hung on coat hangers in one corner and all along a wall was a shelf filled with his favorite books, which flanked a calendar advertising a place called "Tom's Laundry and Laundromat." The Cold Facts
To a place so small that he couldn't stand without banging his head, Moens retreated after leaving McKenna House. It was the only place in the world, he said, where he could think clearly about himself and come up with a logical explanation for his life.
For the first time in 10 years he tried to remember.
He was 15 when it happened, a ninth-grade student at Indianola Junior High School in Columbus. It was St. Valentine's Day, 1974. He lived in a two-story house in a blue-collar neighborhood bordering Ohio State University with his mother, a 51-year-old widow named Juanita Moens. His father, an Air Force engine mechanic, had died of a heart attack two years before.
The cold facts were these: At 10:30 p.m. Juanita Moens was lying on a couch in the living room. She had fallen asleep while watching the film "Ryan's Daughter" on television. Her son stood over her with a claw hammer in his hand. He raised it suddenly and brought it down on her head as hard as he could.
She sat up and held her head with her hands. Moens strangled her, first with his hands, later with a length of twine. When she stopped breathing he hit her eight more times with a crow bar, finally covering her body with a woolen blanket.
The next day Moens went to school and told his homeroom teacher what he had done. An hour later police accompanied him home, where he showed them his mother's body. Next to it were the murder weapons and a confession inscribed with the words "I Killed Her." It was signed "Robert E. Moens."
In the Columbus newspapers the next day the murder was front-page news. The Dispatch quoted school officials as saying Moens was "an average student," but "very emotional." Homicide detectives told a reporter that Moens said he had killed her because she "was overly possessive" and "driving me insane."
Moens was charged with murder and placed in the custody of Franklin County, Ohio, juvenile court authorities. He pleaded innocent by reason of insanity to the crime, according to his court-appointed attorney, Allen V. Adair. But in the Ohio statutes for offenses committed by juveniles, there was no provision for an insanity plea. Moens' attorney and prosecutors eventually reached an agreement whereby Moens pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.
He was committed to the Ohio Youth Commission, where he was ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment. He was to remain in the commission's custody until he reached the age of 18. After spending six months at the Juvenile Detention Center in Columbus, Moens said he was sent to a reform school for emotionally troubled youths called Edgemead in Mountain Home, Idaho. There, he said, he met and fell in love with a 15-year-old girl from Newark, N.J.
They left the school in 1977 and traveled to Washington. Moens worked at first as a telephone solicitor, and later became a supply clerk for a carpet cleaning company in Arlington. He got an apartment in Falls Church, and his girlfriend gave birth to two children in two years, a boy and girl, he said. In between the births they got married in a civil ceremony at the Arlington County Courthouse.
In 1980 Moens' wife left him, taking the children with her to Newark, where she filed for divorce. Moens lost his job when the company went bankrupt. "I just hit the road, hitchhiking," he said. "I traveled to Florida, then on to California." He donated blood plasma for money, he said, and often slept beneath interstate overpasses.
He returned to Washington two years ago, but found it difficult to find a steady job while living as a homeless man. For spending money he sold papers in the morning, and kept his mind busy playing chess, sometimes as long as a 10 hours a day, in Dupont Circle and Lafayette Square where he found utmost delight defeating businessmen during lunch hour.
And he discovered comrades in the streets, Charles Monroe, Bryan Pleasant and others who, sharing their misery in company, looked to the opening of McKenna House for new starts in life. Remembering, Letting Go
Those were the facts Moens remembered in his sidewalk shack as the spring of 1984 turned to summer. But over the course of those warm weeks, as he pondered his past with increasing intensity, other recollections emerged, giving light to emotions and nightmares long forgotten and never shared.
They came out in hours and hours of talks he had with Friar Jack. He wasn't quite able to put all the pieces of the puzzle together -- he still isn't -- but for the first time he recognized that a puzzle existed.
He remembered the questions the psychiatrists asked him afterward, and the answers he gave. After his father's death, he told them, his mother became strict and possessive with him. He said he couldn't set foot outside without her badgering him about where he was going, what he was doing, who he was going to see. She became so obsessed with protecting him that he grew to hate her.
The explanation seemed so coldly probable, and Moens expressed it so many times to so many doctors, that he began to believe it as the truth. For 10 years he believed it until a sweltering day in June, for no apparent reason, he remembered more.
His family was never outwardly emotional, he said that day, as he sat in the shade of an oak tree near the Ellipse. His father was a moody man who never beat or abused him, but always let him know how he felt by the silences he kept. Moens said he didn't know much about sex when he was growing up, and nothing at all about sexual abuse.
When he was growing up, Moens had many kinds of collections. When he was 13, two older boys told him about a man who collected things that Moens was interested in. They introduced Moens to him one afternoon and left him at the man's house when Moens asked to see the collection.
He didn't know what to call what happened to him there. All he knew was that it was violent. It wasn't until a year later that he discovered there was a word for the incident. Rape.
Moens knew he couldn't tell his parents, he said. And when the two older boys, who knew about the man's evil, confronted him in school the next day to demand money in return for their silence, Moens paid them $3. For the next year, he said, he paid the boys, sometimes asking for money from his mother.
Two years later, in February, 1974, the violence happened again.
"I was really into running track," he said, his voice choking with emotion as he remembered the six days that led up to St. Valentine's Day. "I wasn't the fastest person in school. I didn't belong to the team or anything, but every day I'd run after school. Sometimes I thought I could run forever and never get tired. . . . "
On Friday, February 9, he recalled, he had run for about two hours on the school track. It began to rain, he remembered, and as he started to head home, a stocky middle-aged man with dark hair who had been sitting on a bench at the track, yelled over to ask him if he needed a lift.
Moens said he accepted the offer.
He paused a minute in the story, tears swelling in his eyes. Through the haze of memory he grappled for words to explain what happened, how "scary" the man seemed, and how they both, in some inexplicable way, ended up in the basement bathroom of a hospital where, for the second time in two years, the boy's trust was violently abused.
He remembered the man's name. He remembered being dropped off at home and giving the man his telephone number when he asked for it -- anything, just to get away. Then he remembered the telephone.
Twice the man called him in the next six days, asking to see him again, he said. Every time the phone rang it was a vivid reminder of the guilt he felt over the wrong he believed he had committed. The only thing he feared more than seeing the man again was the possibility of his mother discovering what had happened.
"She was so sad after my father died," he said, his brown eyes staring off toward the Washington Monument. "I knew she would find out sooner or later. I just didn't want her to hurt anymore. . . . "
As a child, he said, he truly believed in the idea of self-sacrifice, thinking it was life's most noblest concept. Thus, he came upon a solution to his trauma. He would sacrifice his life by sacrificing his mother's. "It sounds so unbelievable, I know," he said. "Maybe that's why I just forgot so much . . . " But it made sense then, he went on. He wanted to free her from further suffering, and knew that he would be punished for the crime. He would suffer for her.
So he wrote a long confession note afterward, explaining in cold detail everything he had done, wanting to be sure he would be punished. Ten years later, as he sat in a park in Washington with tears rolling down his cheeks, the one clear image in his mind was the vision of his mother holding her head in her hands when he hit her, pain etched in her face.
Friar Jack was the first person Moens told about those long-forgotten events. Moens said he trusted the priest and believed in the sincerity of his concern. So he told him everything just as he remembered, during sessions in the friar's office at McKenna House and on long walks through the streets of Northwest, one man talking not to a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist but to a friend who seemed to care.
To spur his memory Moens walked to the Library of Congress where he sifted through stacks of microfilm and photocopied everything he could find about his crime, showing the sheets of paper to the priest and the other clerics at McKenna House.
Little by little he and Friar Jack used the threads of guilt and despair in his memory to tie together a pattern to his life, recognizing that Moens was still punishing himself unmercifully. He found jobs only to lose them. He destroyed his marriage and his relationship with his children. Each time he seemed to recover he self-destructed, finding a perverse solace in suffering, in soup lines, public shelters and the 27 square-feet of a sidewalk newspaper shack.
Neither of them was sure if the assessment was truly correct, or if Moens' version of the truth was final and complete. Friar Jack wasn't sure if he fully understood, or could ever understand, everything Moens told him. And Moens wasn't sure yet if he remembered everything clearly enough. Even if he did, he said, he didn't know exactly where to go from there.
The one thing both of them recognized was that McKenna House had spurred a catharsis in him and that if he could find any salvation at all, McKenna House was as good a place as any to start.
So on July 14, Moens packed up his belongings in the newspaper shack and returned to 1501 Park Road. He was handed an envelope containing his birth certificate, which finally arrived in the mail. With it, he said, he would be able to get a driver's license, perhaps, and start to reestablish a firmer connection to the society from which he had withdrawn.
With the envelope in hand, he trooped upstairs to unpack in Room 10, a corner bedroom on the second floor. Next door he heard the sounds of someone plucking a guitar. He went into the hallway, stuck his head inside Room 9 and saw Bryan Pleasant sitting on the floor.
"Hey, dude, you back!" his friend exclaimed.
"Wanna run a game?" Pleasant went on, pointing at a chess set nearby.
"Sure," Moens replied.
And they did.