George Jones was 12 years old when he decided what he wanted to do with his life.

“I didn’t know what the position was called,” Jones told me. “I knew it was going to be helping people.”

That 12-year-old would be proud. Today Jones, 61, is the chief executive of Bread for the City, a District charity that works to alleviate poverty, hunger, sickness and homelessness in Washington. But that 12-year-old might also be a little surprised at the epiphanies Jones has experienced along the way.

Jones grew up in Norfolk. As a youngster, he was influenced by the work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Dr. King remains the voice I hear in my head,” he told me. The assassination of the civil rights leader in 1968 crystallized Jones’s desire to help people in need.

After graduating with a degree in psychology from Norfolk State University, Jones worked for an organization in Chesapeake, Va., that served clients experiencing severe mental illness and the poverty that so often accompanies it.

“That really gave me an on-the-ground view of what life looks like for people experiencing the greatest level of suffering,” he said.

Next, Jones moved to Los Angeles, working with similar clients in a neighborhood whose name has become a synonym for deprivation: Skid Row.

As Jones was gathering experience on the West Coast, Bread for the City was growing in Washington. The charity was the result of a merger in the 1990s between two nonprofits: Bread for the City, a soup kitchen founded in 1976, and Zacchaeus Medical Clinic, which had been providing health care for uninsured Washingtonians since 1974.

Jones was hired in 1996 to head the organization. Then as now, it ran a food pantry. It ran a medical clinic. It provided clothing.

“Somebody said to me when I first started; ‘Isn’t Bread for the City just a Band-Aid?’ ” Jones remembered.

At first, Jones was offended. But he could kind of see the point.

“In a lot of ways, a Band-Aid is what folks on any given day need,” he said. “They are bleeding in terms of not having adequate housing, being food insecure, having chronic health issues related to both the medical disparities they’ve experienced and other socioeconomic disparities.”

So: Address the symptom, then look for the cause.

Bread for the City hosts programs in two buildings: at 1525 Seventh St. NW and at the new Michelle Obama center at 1700 Good Hope Rd. SE. At both, clients can collect groceries, see doctors, meet with social workers and consult legal experts on issues such as housing law, family law and immigration law. The building in Southeast maintains a clothing room, too.

Jones says his understanding of poverty has changed in the decades since the 12-year-old George heard the call of King. He was sympathetic to people fighting homelessness, but, like so many of us, he thought of poverty as an individualized phenomenon, the result of personal choice.

“You did or didn’t go to school. You did or didn’t study. You did or didn’t compete in the sort of game of life as well as some of us did,” he said.

But the past two years — years of Black Lives Matter protests; of arguments over Confederate monuments and critical race theory and reparations — have convinced him that the deck is stacked in that game of life. The causes of poverty are deeply rooted. It’s time for more than Band-Aids, as important as they are.

“We’ve spent much of the last 20 years just trying to provide these services to people in a way that is reactive to poverty,” Jones said. “Now the question is: Will we be able to get the real political will to make a change?

“Now there’s this new hope over the last two years in American society in general — and in D.C. in particular — that maybe we can make a kind of quantum leap in terms of addressing things in an upstream way,” he said.

And Bread for the City is involved in that, too, working on the kind of advocacy Jones hopes will someday put him out of the job he’s wanted since he was 12 years old.

Bread for the City is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, our annual fundraising drive. To make a donation, visit To donate a check by mail, send it to Bread for the City, Attn: Development, 1525 Seventh St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001.

Twitter: @johnkelly

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