The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Home for the holidays? An effort aims to get two dozen people into housing before Christmas.

Neptali Salmeron, who has been homeless for 15 years, will move into his own place on Monday. (Pathways to Housing DC)
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In less than an hour, James Simmons will have to check into a homeless shelter, where a bunk bed waits for him. But at this moment, as he walks along Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast Washington, his focus is not on that place.

He is thinking about the meal he wants to make his fiancee on Christmas Day.

“I want to cook her something she hasn’t tried,” he says. “Something like sirloin, and maybe some white wine.”

The 36-year-old D.C. native met Brittany Crutchfield when they were children, and they have dated for about eight years. In that time, he had one near-fatal injury followed by another and can recall only once when he was in a position to show her the culinary techniques he learned in a program years ago.

For that meal, he roasted turkey and prepared homemade parfaits, the taste of which she still remembers.

Nowadays, the only glimpses she catches of his skills come when he carves apples into flowers to calm his nerves.

But that could soon change, if all goes as planned. Simmons could soon have his own home, with his own kitchen, stocked with his own pots and pans. He could soon be making her that holiday meal.

“It would be awesome if it was by Christmas,” he says. “It would truly be a blessing. It’s sad, but all I want is to blend into the community. I just want to feel like a normal citizen. Just have a family. Just be secure.

“I just want to make my wife dinner.”

The organization Pathways to Housing DC has been working with Simmons and trying to get him and about two dozen other people, who have been living in hotels, shelters and on the streets, into homes in time for the holidays.

It’s an admirable goal with the potential for some powerful happy endings.

It’s also an uncertain one that depends on factors beyond the control of those individuals or their caseworkers — and will probably see some still waiting for that home after Christmas has passed.

There are thousands of people without housing in the nation’s capital, many of whom Pathways works with through different programs. The two dozen are simply the ones who are furthest along in the tedious process required to get subsidized housing in the city. They are the ones sitting closest to hope.

Even so, a look at what it took to get them to that point shows how the pandemic has increased both the stakes for moving people into stable housing and the hurdles in doing so. It has made in-person visits riskier to conduct, documents harder to obtain, potential apartments trickier to visit and, most concerning to the people behind those efforts, funding feeling less secure at a time when needs are rising.

“We know that the District is potentially facing significant budget shortfalls,” says Christy Respress, executive director of Pathways to Housing DC. “The Department of Human Services has asked us to be prepared for a worst-case scenario with potential cuts.”

Pathways and other nonprofits that work with the District’s homeless population rely in part on the city for funding. While D.C. officials have not yet put in place any cuts, Respress worries that without community pressure, resources will shrink as the workload grows.

Residents who have lost jobs and been unable to pay their rent have been protected by the city’s moratorium on eviction filings. When that is gone, their housing could be, too.

“This is not the time to be cutting essential human services that address that need,” Respress says.

When Pathways started its work in the District, it brought with it a model that was based on providing housing first to people and then surrounding them with the services they needed to be successful. Respress says she still keeps in touch with some of the first 55 people the organization helped find housing. One man now works for the city, providing services to people who don’t have housing. And one woman who has also found success and given back to the community texts her updates about her children and grandchildren.

Among the two dozen people the organization was aiming to get into homes before the holidays, some have already moved in, a few have pending move-in dates, and others are waiting.

On Monday, Neptali Salmeron, who left El Salvador in 1986 to come to the United States, will move into his new apartment.

The 62-year-old says he used to work construction jobs in the District, and when he couldn’t find any, he would go to New Jersey to do agricultural work. He says he has been homeless for about 15 years. In that time, he says, he has mostly slept outside in neighborhoods that are heavily populated by Latinos, going to shelters only on those nights when it’s too cold to stay outdoors.

In February, Briana Perez-Brennan, who does outreach work for Pathways, started working with Salmeron to try to get him housing. She says members of the Latino community and immigrants often face additional barriers to getting housing because of government funding exclusions and the laborious documentation process.

When I ask Salmeron what it means to him that he will soon have his own apartment, he says in Spanish that it makes him “feel content and happy.”

He will get to shower when he wants, change his clothes when he wants, warm up what food he wants. When you sleep outside, it’s hard to get hot meals, he says.

“Everything is really going to be so different,” he says. “So different.”

Simmons isn’t sure yet when his move-in date might come, but he says he tries to stay positive. “At least I know someone cares enough to call and check on my situation and welfare,” he says of his Pathways caseworker.

“It’s sad to say, but it’s to the point that there is no other choice but to be hopeful,” Crutchfield says. “That’s what we tell each other: ‘Don’t give up.’ ”

She is walking next to him on that day when he makes his way along Rhode Island Avenue. She doesn’t stay at the shelter, but she comes to check on him to make sure he’s exercising. She also reminds him to take his medication.

It’s hard to sum up a life, especially a complicated one, in a paragraph. But when Simmons talks about his, he does so with the brevity of someone who has been forced to relay it many times to officials. He offers it in bullet points. As he tells it, he joined the Marines at 18 and served for eight years before returning to D.C. Once back in the city, he worked odd jobs and experienced two separate serious injuries that left him using a walker or cane to get around and struggling with his short-term memory.

In 2016, he says, his leg was injured when a truck hit him while he was delivering food on a scooter. Before that, he says, he was working for a car service when he was robbed and stabbed in his hand. Crutchfield says she told him to go to a hospital that night, but he wrapped it himself and waited until the next day. By then, he developed a blood infection. Simmons recalls waking up months later from a coma and having to relearn basic skills. He says he still struggles to talk if he doesn’t think first about what he wants to say.

Crutchfield, who is living with a relative, now makes his medical appointments for him and stays on top of him to call government agencies when they don’t call him back.

As they walk that day, she reminds him that it’s almost time for him to check into the shelter and suggests they start heading back.

“She’s my everything,” he says. Even though the apartment will be his, he talks about it as theirs. He describes them waking up together, building a family together and sitting at that dinner table together.

If he doesn’t get the chance to make her that Christmas dinner, he will still get a meal that day. One of the charities, he says, has promised to bring food by the shelter.

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

Need a last-minute gift? How about a camel? A different kind of year has groups hoping shoppers will turn to a different kind of giving.

A beloved Christmas display went dark — and stayed that way. Because 2020.

She is the Brown girl superhero the world needs right now — and in recent days, she has gained fans from Mumbai to Maryland

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