The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He served in the Air Force, and now he sleeps on a D.C. park bench

Tomás Banks sits on the bench in McPherson Square where he spent many days after losing his housing. (Theresa Vargas/TWP)
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The party Tomás Banks attended occurred more than three decades ago, and while time has smudged some of his memories of that day, he hasn’t forgotten the birthday card he handed a friend.

In it, Banks had scribbled a generic but generous, “Love always.”

Two words. That’s all that sat above his name. And that’s all it took, as Banks tells it, to land him in front of military police officers. At the time, he and that man were both serving in the U.S. Air Force and shared some of the same friends, men who sometimes met at a gay nightclub, despite knowing they could receive a dishonorable discharge if caught. After the recipient of the birthday card came under investigation, Banks was called in for questioning. What exactly did he mean by “love always”?

Banks is now 54 and openly gay, but at the time, he was 21 and knew better than to say anything.

“I would have been kicked out,” he says. “That was clear to me immediately.”

Banks tells me this on a recent afternoon as we sit outside a restaurant next to McPherson Square. On the table between us, he has placed proof of his service: a sheet of paper that lists when he joined the military, Oct. 7, 1985, and what he accomplished while actively serving for four years before receiving an honorable discharge. It describes him as working as a dental assistant specialist and earning an outstanding unit award and Good Conduct Medal.

“I loved the military,” says Banks, who was born in D.C. and grew up in Hawaii. He talks excitedly about the dental work he did while in the Air Force and the jobs he held after his service ended. He describes working in retail, climbing his way up to managerial positions for several companies, and traveling to work in stores in California, Nevada, New York and eventually the D.C. region.

“During one interview I was asked, ‘Where do you want to go?’ ” he recalls. “And I gave the answer everyone should: Where do you need me to go?”

To see Banks at that table, a person would probably assume he works in one of the nearby office buildings. He wears a collared shirt and drinks a chai tea latte with soy milk and two espresso shots. But that meeting spot was not picked by accident.

“I used to sit on that bench and freeze for hours,” he tells me, pointing out a bench in the park situated near a small tree and a bus stop. It’s where he started sleeping toward the end of last year after the death of a former partner.

That loss followed a series of traumatic experiences, including the sudden death of his mother shortly after he moved back to the D.C. region, that caused him to lose motivation, jobs and eventually his apartment. His mother had been crossing the street to go play bridge with friends when she was hit by a car. She survived for five days before she died.

“I died that day myself,” Banks says. “That was my person. I had no ambition after that.”

Banks now sleeps on a bench in a different part of the city when he can’t find a borrowed bed for the night. He tells me this not because he wants help. He’s already receiving that from several outreach workers. He and two other LGBTQ veterans who have known housing struggles spoke with me about their experiences in hope of helping others like them, or at least, the public’s understanding of the legacy left by the military forcing service members to hide those parts of their identity.

In September, timed to the 10th anniversary of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” the Department of Veterans Affairs issued new guidance clarifying that military members who were given other than an honorable discharge because of their “sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status” were eligible for full benefits.

That means people like the man who received that birthday card, and received a dishonorable discharge, can access critical services.

That means Jim Davis, who works as a veterans peer support specialist for Pathways to Housing DC, has more ways to get people off the street.

Before, if he encountered an LGBTQ veteran living in a shelter or on a bench and they didn’t have an honorable discharge, he couldn’t get them a housing voucher through Veterans Affairs, he says. He had to find another way. Now, he has that option.

“We’ve come a long way in ending homelessness for veterans,” he says. “But there is still a lot to be done.”

Davis, who is 60, decided to enlist in the Air Force the day President Ronald Reagan was shot. He had known since the age of 8 that he was gay, he says, but during his time in the military, he used church to hide that part of himself. Before moving to the D.C. area and getting a job with Pathways, he spent 15 years living in the woods in Tennessee along the Appalachian Trail.

“When I was in the middle of it, you wouldn’t have convinced me I was homeless,” he says. Now, he’s the one doing the convincing, trying to pull other veterans toward housing stability. “The most important thing I have is my story, that shared experience. If I can do it, you can do it.”

“If we can do it, you can do it,” he says, looking at Andrea Anderson. He describes the Army veteran as a success story.

At that moment, we are sitting outside her apartment in Southeast Washington. But when Davis met Anderson in 2015, she was staying at the Chesapeake Veterans House, a transitional housing program that serves people who are between homelessness and permanent housing.

“When I first came to the Washington area, I was broken to the point that I didn’t know where I was going,” Anderson says.

Twice in those early years, she attempted to end her life, she says. The second time she flatlined, and after she regained consciousness, she recalls a medical staff member telling her, “God ain’t ready for you, and the devil don’t want you.”

Anderson doesn’t like the word “transgender,” so she describes herself as going “through a transition.”

When she was a teenager, her mom took her to a psychiatrist, she says. She recalls her “feminine self” standing there and hearing him say, “I think you brought him in just in time.” The psychiatrist, she says, then tried to explain how men walked — face up, hips straight.

Later, when Anderson joined the Army, she had to attest she was a straight man, knowing it was a lie. She also knew people in her life doubted she would make it in the military.

“I had to put on a show,” she says. “I had to play the game. I couldn’t let anyone know what I was really feeling.”

She credits the staff at Pathways with helping her find stability in the D.C. region. While working with them, she legally changed her name, got needed prosthetics through VA and saw her credit score rise, enabling her to find that apartment on her own.

“There are resources out there,” Davis says. “We don’t believe any veterans should spend one more night on the streets.”

After working with people from VA, Pathways and Friendship Place, Banks received his VA medical care ID card last week. He also found out that he was approved for a VA housing voucher.

He is now looking for an apartment and researching whether he can get a loan to start a business that will allow him to hire other people in need of housing.

“Don’t assume when you see someone who is homeless they are lazy,” he says as we walk to that familiar bench in McPherson Square. “Everyone has a story.”

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

First they were ignored. Now, they’re being sent far from their families and attorneys.

Five young people stopped eating to get grown-ups to start addressing the climate crisis

An unhoused woman flipped off D.C.’s mayor. Then came more criticism of the city’s actions to get people off the streets.

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