When Phil Colbert moved into his home in Northwest Washington in January, all he had was a few blankets and a Panasonic stereo.
His second-floor studio was mostly bare — a reminder that he hadn’t had a stable home in years. He first experienced homelessness when he voluntarily followed his sister into the streets to protect her. Then, he said, he became involved with alcohol, drugs and a life of petty crime. Soon, he found himself with an arrest record for misdemeanor drug crimes, and he ended up serving a 15-month jail sentence for a parole violation.
Colbert, 52, had almost forgotten what it felt like to have a home. But he recently got one, and the memories came flooding back. His home got a futon, a flat-screen TV, cookware and other items, courtesy of the Capitol Hill garage-turned-furniture-shop the Shed D.C.
“I’m just very grateful because it could have been worse,” Colbert said as he looked around his apartment. “I could have been still out in the streets.”
Rebecca Margao, owner of the Shed D.C., galvanized community members to completely redesign Colbert’s apartment this summer. She and five other volunteers rolled up their sleeves and transformed the apartment from a blank canvas into a comfortable living space.
Margao, 33, knew what it was like to be displaced. She said she was living with a partner last year when a conflict occurred, and she got pushed out. After she moved into a condo, she spent a year trying to re-create the feeling of home.
The experience made Margao want to help someone else — ideally, a person transitioning out of homelessness or incarceration — so they could avoid the same feeling, she said. Pathways to Housing D.C., a nonprofit group that combats homelessness, connected Margao with Colbert in May.
Pathways contracts with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Health and Human Services and the D.C. Housing Authority to get clients housing vouchers that usually are worth about $1,500 per month. If a client has an income, they contribute 30 percent of that money to their rent. Vouchers cover the entire cost of rent for clients without an income, said Rachel Pierre, Pathways’ chief operating officer.
Colbert has no income, so his rent is covered by a HUD voucher. He gets groceries from the food pantry Bread for the City and from churches. Lina Permut, donor relations officer at Pathways to Housing D.C., said some of Pathways’ clients struggle to find employment because of severe mental illness or past incarceration, though she did not discuss Colbert’s situation specifically.
After Pathways introduced Margao to Colbert, she said she talked with him about his style and then got to work. She raided the Shed D.C.’s furniture supply. She asked the Capitol Hill location of McCormick Paints to mix custom paint colors. She collected seasonings and dish towels from the Spice Suite in Takoma Park.
A dining room set that Margao found abandoned on a curb served as the centerpiece of her design, she said, and she left in Colbert’s apartment a beloved desk and chairs that he already owned. A plan came together for the rest of the living space with donations of furniture and money.
On Aug. 6, Po’s Moving & Storage donated its services to transport the furniture to the apartment while volunteers cleaned. Someone swept and mopped the bathroom. Another person emptied the refrigerator. Still another volunteer wiped down the countertops.
The six women hung curtains and music-themed artwork — a painting of a boombox and another of DJ equipment. The team wanted to show Colbert that they had accounted for his personal style, Margao said.
“When you’re in a place of not having a lot of good things happen to you, I think you automatically think it’s not real or it’s not going to happen,” Margao said. “It’s so important for that population of people to know that people can come through for you.”
Volunteer Lynette Jefferies, 47, said she got involved in the redesign when she went to the Shed D.C. to drop off donations and saw Margao staging the furniture. Jeffries, of Baltimore, said she didn’t want Margao to take on all the labor, so the pair worked together to devise a layout for the apartment.
“This is an example of being able to use your time and your talent to do something that ultimately is incredibly impactful, even if it’s just one person,” Permut said.
Colbert, who grew up in Southeast Washington, said he first walked into Pathways 14 years ago. The organization helped him find an apartment in Northeast, Colbert said, but the situation didn’t stick. He said his mental illnesses kept him moving between apartments, shelters and the streets for about a decade.
When he finished serving time for his parole violation in July 2018, Colbert said he struggled to get back on his feet. Pathways helped him get his studio apartment in Manor Park, a neighborhood whose diversity and family culture appealed to him. After several months, Colbert upgraded his sleeping quarters from blankets on the floor to a rollaway bed.
When he met Margao, Colbert told her about the things he likes: cooking and singing country, rap and gospel music. (He calls himself a “walking jukebox” and, at one point, paused a conversation with this reporter to belt out a Conway Twitty song.)
Colbert also told Margao what he wanted in his apartment: a big dining room table to host guests and a PlayStation 4 to play basketball and baseball games. He got the table but not the PlayStation. (“We had a limit on miracles,” Margao said with a laugh.)
Colbert, who has been married and divorced twice, has two grown sons he hasn’t seen in 18 years — and his greatest wish is to reconcile with them. He wants to get back to performing gospel music, which he calls his “ministry.” God, Colbert said, has gotten him through a lot.
After Margao’s redecoration of his apartment, Colbert returned to the revamped space on his birthday.
“For the first time,” Colbert said, “I felt like I was at home.”
His younger brother came over that night, and Colbert cooked hamburgers. Then they ate together at the dining room table that Colbert had wished for, in a home that was his own.
Editor’s note: Phil Colbert died on Sept. 3. The circumstances surrounding his death were unclear.