The driver calls some of the men by name. Sometimes he uses a nickname — like “Champ” or “Red” — to set them at ease. He knows who is headed to “New York Ave.” and who will spend the night at “801.”
And when each passenger gets off the bus — back at a homeless shelter after a day on D.C.’s gentrifying streets — Orlando Gore wishes them well with an honorific they rarely hear elsewhere:
“Have a good night, gentlemen!”
Gore has spent four years driving a nightly loop from downtown to local homeless shelters. He is not the face of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) efforts to decrease the high homelessness rate in the nation’s capital. Nor is he a main force behind getting his riders out of the shelters and into their own homes.
Instead, he is a one-man generator of small acts of kindness, driven by his own memories of tough times in his native North Carolina and his early years in Washington, D.C.
He has never lived on the streets himself, he says, saved by the generosity of family and friends on those occasions when his money ran out. But he has a special kinship with his passengers, perhaps borne of his knowledge that he easily could have ended up in their shoes.
“He gets us where we’re going,” said Kenneth Pearson, a regular passenger, as Gore steered through rush hour one recent evening. “And everybody enjoys themselves.”
Gore, 47, is one of more than a dozen outreach workers employed by the United Planning Organization, a community action agency founded in 1962 to bring programs to the District’s low-income residents.
The organization’s shelter hotline program, launched in 1990, includes year-round transportation and referral services for the homeless. Drivers divide their shifts between scheduled pickups or drop-offs at shelters and outreach work.
The program began as a pilot after a young homeless woman died on a bench in D.C., said program manager Ericka Ransom. Then UPO contracted with the city to provide two vehicles for transportation and emergency services. There are now eight vehicles in use, and two more during weather-alert days, making more than 140,000 trips each year.
Gore grew up in North Carolina, where he played a bit of baseball and football, but turned heads as a point guard on his high school basketball team.
“In my house, you had to do something. You had to stay busy,” he said.
There were some offers to play college ball. But Gore’s mother was sick, and he decided not to leave. “I stayed home to make sure she was all right,” he said.
He moved to D.C. 15 years ago, and spent a decade as a bus driver for Metro. When he lost that job, he lost his home also, a tough period that he prefers not to say too much about. He got by doing lawn work and staying with a series of friends and relatives, before going to work for UPO. Now he lives with a friend in Southeast Washington, not too far from the 801 shelter.
“I went through a little hardship,” Gore said, adding that reaching out to his passengers is “my way of giving back. I understand where a lot of people are coming from when they’re in this position.”
Gore said he was surprised, at first, to learn about the range of circumstances that land the men he drives in shelters. He’s gotten to know people who used to own businesses, made one bad investment and lost everything.
“They’re just looking for their second chance,” he said. “The shelter is a way of getting everything in order, going through the process to get back on their feet. A lot of them are really trying.”
Gore’s bus pulls up outside the Church of the Epiphany four times Tuesday through Saturday, between 4:30 and 8:30 p.m.
“What’s up, big kid!” he said to one of his riders on a recent evening.
Another shift had begun.
The bus, painted on the outside with bright red letters reading “Shelter Hotline Transport,” clanked as it pulled away from the church. At Gore’s feet sat a spray bottle of Lysol, a fire extinguisher, a broom and dustpan and the clipboard he uses to track the number of men boarding and exiting.
Gore made small talk with each of the men as they boarded, on their way to the 801 East Men’s shelter on Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. One of the passengers, who gave his name only as Charles, kidded him for nearly missing a turn.
A passionate music lover, Gore takes great care to choose his playlist each night, tailoring songs based on his riders’ moods and blaring the tunes from speakers overhead.
One hot July night, he chose a mix of gospel music and pop rock. He danced to the beat from his seat, waving his arms. When Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” came on, shortly after an ad touting homeownership, Gore cranked up the volume.
“Man, you’ve gone soft on me!” teased a passenger.
After dropping eight men off at the New York Avenue shelter, Gore headed back to the church for his 7:30 pick up. He made a brief stop at a convenience store for a cold can of Pepsi, but took only a few sips before setting it down.
He didn’t touch the can again until Peter Chambers, 70, boarded the bus, carrying a blue grocery bag and a black gym bag and choosing a seat right behind Gore.
“You want the rest of this?” Gore said, offering the soda.
“Thank you buddy!” Chambers smiled. “This will cool me down.”
Chambers took the can with him when he got off the bus. As Gore drove back to the church, he passed the Ivy City Smokehouse Tavern and Market, a posh bar and restaurant where grilled salmon goes for $24 and parked BMWs line the sidewalk.
On another night this summer, Gore stopped at a red light and rolled down his window to hand a pack of fresh socks to a man standing on the median.
“What’s up dude! How you been doing? Good to see you!” he said.
“He used to be in the shelter,” Gore explained after the light turned green. “He’s got an apartment now. But they still remember who you are.”
For his final loop that evening, songs by Bruce Springsteen filled the air. On the floor by the driver’s seat sat Gore’s unfinished chicken lunch, which he planned to offer, casually, to one of “the guys.”
After pulling up to the New York Avenue shelter, Gore opened the door and bid his passengers farewell.
“All right, gentlemen!” he said.