Most homeless shelters are places to spend the night, not places to spend the day. So when Chris Thompson lived in a men’s homeless shelter on New York Avenue NE, he would pack his things in the morning and head to Silver Spring, killing time in the library before returning in the evening and checking back in.
He had been doing that for two weeks when, one Saturday morning, another resident suggested Chris board a shuttle bus that was idling outside the shelter.
Chris asked: Where is it going?
“He didn’t tell me,” Chris said. “He said, ‘Just get on the bus.’ ”
“I just remember breaking down and crying,” he said. “It really hit me at that point that I’m homeless: not knowing where I was going, with three bags of clothing all piled up around me.”
It had been a long downward slide. An Army brat with some college under his belt, Chris for years had a good job in property management at a high-end condominium community across from Meridian Hill Park. Then came the death of his father. To cope with that and other traumas, Chris turned to alcohol.
“I started to become uncaring about everything,” Chris said. That included his job, which Chris was asked to leave at the end of 2014.
“And it just went downhill for that next year,” he said.
It was a year characterized by “extreme isolation, depression, panic attacks so severe at times that I remember just shaking,” he said.
Chris burned through his savings, leaving his apartment to do little more than buy food and alcohol.
“I knew I was struggling at that point, that I was unemployed, but I didn’t know how to reach out and get help,” he said.
Chris didn’t feel he could turn to his family. “The shame and guilt of falling and basically ruining my life was so overpowering that I couldn’t reach out,” he said.
Facing eviction, Chris walked out of his apartment and wound up in that shelter on New York Avenue. He wound up on that bus.
It drove across town and stopped in the unit block of O Street NW in front of a charity called So Others Might Eat. Men filed out to get the free breakfast SOME offered.
As he waited his turn, Chris watched a video that explained that SOME had more than just a meal. It asked: Do you need medical help? Dental help? Therapeutic help? Housing?
“I needed all of that,” Chris said.
Chris returned to SOME the following Monday and filled out paperwork that secured him a place, a few weeks later, in the group’s substance abuse program in West Virginia.
“Everyone in West Virginia has an opportunity to address what ails them, not just the substance itself, whatever it might be, but the root cause of the addiction,” he said. “I knew there were things in my past, childhood traumas, I had never talked to anyone about.”
After three months in West Virginia, Chris returned to Washington and moved into SOME housing. He was encouraged to look for work and to take job skills classes. (With a more stable work history than some of his fellow SOME clients, he ended up teaching a few.)
For two years, Chris has had a part-time job at Banana Republic. He also works occasionally as a personal assistant. He’s putting money away in savings and has improved his credit rating. He’s become involved with Back On My Feet, a group that uses running to support people who have experienced homelessness.
Chris often thinks of the homeless man he met that Saturday morning. His name was David, and Chris has never seen him again.
“Had he not told me to get on that bus, I don’t know if I would have found this place,” Chris said. “If you’re open to it and willing to accept it, they can set you up for the rest of your life to be successful — or be successful again.”
So Others Might Eat is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, the annual fundraising drive among Post readers. I spoke to Chris, who’s 50 now, at SOME headquarters on O Street. As our conversation drew to a close, I asked him how I should refer to him in print. Could I use his name? First name? Full name?
He was amazingly candid.
“I don’t like hiding my story,” Chris said, “because when I hide, I feel there’s something to be ashamed of. I can’t be ashamed about anything I’ve done before. I’ve got to be an example to others, as others have been to me.”
I hope you’ll be an example and give to SOME. Visit PostHelpingHand.com, and click on “Donate.” To give by mail, make a check payable to “So Others Might Eat,” and send it to SOME, Attn: Helping Hand, 71 O St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20001.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.