(This story has updated)
Robert Fox knew where he should spend Christmas. With his daughter, who would welcome him with a hug and a kiss. He would tell her he loved her, and thank God for bringing them together. He would reminisce about happy memories over butter pecan ice cream and lemon cake with chocolate frosting. He would shave and shower and sleep in a warm bed, and when he woke up, he’d begin his new life.
What he didn’t know was how any of that could happen.
Fox, 70, imagined all this as he sat on a bench in downtown Washington’s Franklin Square, surrounded by makeshift tents patched together by people who, with Christmas less than 48 hours away, had already given up on finding a special place to spend the holiday. The temperature had climbed into the 50s, so he unbuttoned his wool coat and tipped back his full-brim camouflage hat, allowing the sunlight to cascade across the creases of his worried face.
His daughter lived 61 miles south, in a small town just outside Fredericksburg, Va. He has a cellphone but can’t afford to pay for service. He didn’t know his daughter’s number or even the number of anyone who did. He hadn’t seen her since a relative’s funeral five, maybe six years ago, and they hadn’t talked in four. He didn’t own a car, and in his pocket was all the money he had left in the world: 62 cents.
“I’m going through some things,” he said, but what that really meant was that he’d been living on the streets of the nation’s capital for nearly a year. That’s what had brought him to Franklin Square, an unofficial refuge for the city’s homeless. The District has spent millions of dollars to reduce their numbers, and the city has been taking more families off the streets, but the number of single adults has continued to grow.
Fox acknowledged that he’s made some bad choices. He loves his five children, even if he hasn’t been around all the time. He’s struggled with drugs, off and on, he said, and been arrested a number of times through the years, once serving a year in prison on a cocaine conviction.
He had always found a way to earn a living, though, ever since he left home in Ruther Glen, Va., at age 14 to live with an aunt in the District. Back then, he worked in the basement of the Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase, Md., draping clothes he could never afford on hangers. He has since held dozens of other jobs, as a roofer and painter and construction worker. In the 1970s, he lugged bags for travelers as a skycap at Washington National Airport, where Fox said he saw celebrities including James Brown and the Pointer Sisters pass by.
For a long time, he renovated houses and worked on cars, often with his oldest son, and that was enough to fill the fridge and pay the rent.
His life started to come undone about 15 years ago, when he returned home to find his fiancee sprawled on their bed. An aneurysm had taken her life.
The cost of the funeral, he said, wiped out his savings, and from there, things just got harder. About four years ago, he was evicted from his place in Northeast, and though he started receiving $531 a month from Social Security, it was never enough to get him into a new one. For a long time, he bounced from home to home, but his family and friends have their own problems, and most can’t afford to let him stay free. He understood.
He still spends some nights on their couches but many more on the streets, atop sheets of cardboard. When the drivers let him, Fox prefers to ride the public buses all night, because he feels safer on them. He said he’s always refused to beg for money.
His daughter, though — he knows she would help him. That last time they talked was on a Thanksgiving, before he lost his home. He called her as he put the turkey in the oven and, as it happened, she had just done the same. They were both so happy to talk to each other, Fox said, that he cried, and she did, too.
Now there he was, on the bench in Franklin Square, hoping to find a way to her.
Fox figured he should take a Greyhound bus from Union Station to Fredericksburg, where he planned to call her. She would be angry, he said, because they hadn’t talked in so long, but he was certain she would forgive him.
“I know she’s going to say, ‘Dad, I’m on my way to get you,’ ” he said. “I know it.”
The bus ticket cost only $27, but he hadn’t learned that yet. He kept all that he owned — snacks, a jug of lemonade, extra socks — in three bags, and on Monday afternoon, he spent his last 62 cents on a Newport cigarette that he smoked down to the filter.
He was a newcomer to Franklin Square, where a historic school building facing the park once served as a shelter. He had heard the homeless were taken care of there and, too, that they took care of one another.
Patrick Hill, who had lived on the streets for years, suggested Fox try the Georgetown Ministry Center or maybe a church up the street or maybe a pastor friend he knew.
“Hopefully we can get you that ticket,” Hill, 54, told him.
Lisa Smith, homeless for more than a decade after two strokes, offered Fox her cellphone so he could call his oldest son.
“We all help each other,” Smith told him, and she meant it. This park was her home. Every piece of clothing she wore that day — the blue jeans, camo shoes, maroon cap and leather jacket with the fur-lined hoodie — had come from donors who pulled up in cars and vans every day of the week.
She worried about what would become of Franklin Square, and all of them, as the city begins a massive renovation project in the coming months. The empty Franklin School is being transformed into a reading museum called Planet Word.
Smith understood the juxtaposition — the city’s least-powerful residents had claimed a five-acre home at the center of its most powerful neighborhood, just three blocks from the White House. Every day, attorneys, lobbyists and journalists with six-figure incomes peered down at them from the surrounding office buildings (including The Washington Post) or hurried past on their way to work, skirting the panhandlers, avoiding eye contact.
For Smith, though, Franklin Square is all she has.
“It’s like the outside world don’t even exist,” she said.
And what mattered most in this world, as the sun faded and the air cooled, was how to get Fox to his daughter.
Over the phone, his son had said Fox could work with him on a job in Northeast the next day, and that offered some comfort. Maybe he’d get lucky, he thought, and make enough to buy his bus ticket.
As the park’s lamps clicked on and night arrived, so, too, did the stream of altruists. A church group handed out toiletries and club sandwiches before a man dressed as Santa brought thick blankets and black backpacks, each one packed with more food and clothing.
Fox picked through the pack, hoping a gift card that could cover his ticket might be tucked in a pocket.
“I still don’t see no financing, but I ain’t giving up,” he told Hill.
Fox had collected too much stuff to ride the city bus all night, so, in two trips, he lugged all of it across the street and up the steps of the Sphinx Club at Almas Temple. He unfurled one of his new blankets, laid himself down and pulled a second one on top of him.
When he woke, just past 5 a.m. on Christmas Eve, he was no closer to Virginia than he had been the day before. Still, Fox remained hopeful.
He didn’t make it to the job with his son, but he did learn how much a bus ticket to Virginia cost and had come up with a new plan. He would go to Union Station and sell whatever he could — maybe the new coat he’d just been given, still labeled with the $100 price tag, or maybe the thick blanket or the backpack. If that didn’t work, Fox told himself, he would break his rule and, at last, beg people he didn’t know for money. Because Christmas was coming soon, and he just needed to make it to his daughter.
Update: Fox couldn’t reach his daughter by Christmas, so he spent the holiday with his son in the District. Fox’s wish to reunite with her, though, led people all over the world to offer their help. Click here to read more on what’s happened since.
Hannah Natanson, Alice Crites and Michael S. Williamson contributed to this report.