Reporters straggling across Lafayette Square from White House budget briefings last Friday ran into an early Thanksgiving celebration on H Street. A long line formed along tables laden with boxes of turkey dinners. In charge was a lithe and lively man everyone called "Shine." He offered meals to all and darted around to dive into cartons filled with blankets and warm clothes donated by people who wish the homeless well.
Not everyone does these days. In Denver, someone has been beating them to death. In New York, the mayor is doing one of his periodic roundups--homeless people who refuse to go into shelters are threatened with jail. Says Housing and Urban Development chief Andrew Cuomo, who has wangled a billion dollars out of Congress for the street people, "It doesn't make much sense to put the mentally ill in prison, does it?"
"Shine," whose real name is James Ellis, is aware of hostility to his former tribe. He looks pained when asked about the homeless solutions on display in Denver and New York. "I tell people never to take food from strangers," he says. "Somebody may be making them a Drano stew."
He knows all about street life. An Army brat, born at Walter Reed, he lived it for four years. He points across the street at St. John's Episcopal Church. "I slept behind that third pillar every night for four years." By day, he shined shoes--hence his nickname--so industriously that he got enough change to buy food for his pals on the benches. "They called me the Mayor of the Park," he says proudly.
Now he feeds them every Thanksgiving under the auspices of the Points of Light Foundation, the charitable organization that was President George Bush's legacy to the poor, his way of implementing the "kinder, gentler" approach to social problems that he advocated when he was nominated in 1992.
Shine does not fit into any of the three homeless categories: mentally ill, unemployable or addicted. He says he "kinda, sorta" chose to be homeless. "Sometimes you get tired of doing the same thing." He is notably sharp; he had a job as a main-entree cook at the Baltimore Country Club when he split for the street, and he is not addicted to anything but chess, which he still plays on the park's stone tables every day and in all kinds of weather except driving rain.
Chess was the means of his salvation. And he literally carved his way back into the mainstream. He has the grand title of "facilities administrator" at Points of Light and is the office's success story. He has a wife now and a house in Baltimore with a backyard as big as the park. He drives a car, does church work and tries to help his brothers and sisters on the benches to come in from the cold.
Shine's story is that he was rescued by the Lord, in the person of Bob Goodwin, president and CEO, who could look out his window on Jackson Place--Points has since moved a few blocks away--and watch Shine and his pals playing chess hour after hour in the square. He's a chess nut, too, and gradually went to watch at closer range. Finally, he asked one of the regulars if they could have a game.
They were great at this most cerebral of board games, which they told him they had learned in Vietnam or in jail. One day Shine told Goodwin that his chess figures were dinky and he could make him better ones. Goodwin invited him home for dinner and on the way they stopped at Hechinger's for wood and varnish. By the time supper was ready, Shine had carved three figures. He carved 29 more and Goodwin not only bought the set for $200 but promised to sell all Shine could produce. They sold 200 sets.
Points of Light's big job is to fashion programs for other service organizations, for volunteer groups such as Colin Powell's America's Promise. It gets a government subsidy, raises the rest of its funds. The Thanksgiving dinner on H Street is Shine's show and he gets local restaurants such as Lawson's, La Prima and Sizzling Express to cook the 22 turkeys. Ben and Jerry's does the ice cream. The staff doesn't care whether you're homeless. Anyone who's hungry is eligible.
Shine sympathizes with street people who prefer grates and building entrances to homeless shelters. He wouldn't go near them himself: "They were rowdier and more dangerous than the streets, people on drugs shouting all night. I slept much better at St. John's. I don't think people should be put in jail for not wanting to go to those places." He tries to persuade his brothers and sisters on the benches to try another way of life, but he doesn't preach to them. "I don't believe in telling anybody what they already know. They know what they gotta do. I don't tell them nothing except my story in case it would help them."