(The Washington Post)
Columnist

The past three years were the first three years of The Washington Post Helping Hand, and if I’ve learned anything during that time, it’s that there are too many homeless youths and families in our area. Even one single mother and her kids spending a freezing night in their car is too many.

But I’ve learned some other things, too. I’ve learned that our city is blessed with charities that work tirelessly to end homelessness. And I’ve learned that Washington Post readers can be counted on to care. Since Helping Hand’s launch in 2014, Post readers have donated a total of $623,057 to the three inaugural nonprofits in our fundraising campaign: Community of Hope, Homestretch and Sasha Bruce Youthwork.

This year, readers donated $195,540. That fell short of our goal of $225,000, but it’s still an impressive chunk of change that will help people improve lives.

It has been a privilege to enter the homes — or visit the shelters — of people whose experiences are so very different from my own and, I’m guessing, yours.

I confess I sometimes wished their stories were neat and uncomplicated. Neat, uncomplicated stories can be easier to tell. And neat, uncomplicated problems are easier to solve.

It would be nice if people became homeless simply because they were poor. Then we could just give them money. Or just find them a job so they could earn money. Or just train them so they could find a job and earn money.

But the truth is it’s usually a mix of dispiriting factors that tips someone into homelessness or makes it all but inevitable. A person may have grown up in a dysfunctional family without role models to learn from. They may have grown up in foster care or with frequent interactions with “the system.”

They may have been abused at home: beaten or molested. They may have developmental or emotional problems. They may not have finished high school. They may be struggling to raise a child, or children, on their own.

Oh, and they’re also poor.

In the past three years, I’ve met people who fall into all of these categories. Most of them fall into more than one. And so when someone emails me to angrily demand, “Why should I help someone who makes bad decisions?” this is what I think: We don’t get to decide whether to be born, or where, or to whom. We don’t get to pick our parents. And we can’t know what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes.

I want to thank all of the social workers, employment counselors, housing coordinators, therapists, tutors, mentors, volunteers and others at Sasha Bruce Youthwork, Homestretch and Community of Hope. The work they do isn’t easy. It isn’t glamorous. But it’s vital.

I want to thank all of the readers who contributed to the Helping Hand these past three years. The clients I’ve met want sincerely to improve their lives and the lives of their families. They face incredible hurdles. You’ve given them a boost.

Stay tuned to this space. Shortly, I’ll invite other charities that serve the most vulnerable people in our area to apply for the next round of the Helping Hand.

Crosstown traffic

Measured on the scale of a lifetime, 30 minutes isn’t all that long, but when you’re sitting in a traffic jam, it can seem like forever. On Wednesday morning, My Lovely Wife and I inched along 16th Street NW.

We could have taken Metro, of course, but the universe pays attention to when I ride it and orders problems whenever it sees me board the Red Line. And working from home isn’t always an option.

Slowly we crept. A few blocks north of Irving Street, I saw the problem: The traffic light was blinking red in all directions. Was there a police officer up there directing traffic?

The answer came when we drew close. No, no traffic cop. Drivers were left to fend for themselves.

You’re meant to treat a broken traffic light as a four-way stop, but the four-way stop is a lost art. And it’s admittedly hard when you have more than one lane coming in from each direction. It was pretty chaotic up there.

Eventually, we got through it, and after Irving Street, traffic sailed.

I wondered, though, whether the District shouldn’t have a crack team of emergency broken-traffic-light responders.

This was a major artery, malfunctioning at a critical time. People were late for work. Exhaust was spilling into the air. If I ran the District Department of Transportation, I’d have a team of jumpsuited specialists trained in directing traffic (or fixing traffic lights) always at the ready.

But I guess they’d need a helicopter to get there.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.