For years in the 1970s, people would show up at all hours of the day and night at a low, stone building in the unit block of O Street NW hoping to drop off stray dogs and cats. The building had once been an animal shelter but now served a two-legged clientele: people who were hungry and knew they could find a meal at a charity called So Others Might Eat.
The Rev. John Adams, the president of SOME, still chuckles at the memory. (“We told them they had to go up to Oglethorpe Street” where the new animal shelter was, he said.)
The nonprofit has grown a lot in the 40 years since then, not just in real estate but in scope: If you are poor or experiencing homelessness or addiction in Washington, you can probably get help at SOME, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand.
It’s easy for Adams to imagine the forces that can tip someone into poverty. His father was a millworker in Erie, Pa., turning coal into coke for the furnaces of the steel industry.
“He was injured very, very badly and had many years of not being able to work,” said Adams, 76. For a while, the family — father, mother, seven kids — found itself without a home.
“The nuns and the priest were pretty good about helping us in lots of different ways,” he said. “My mother didn’t even think we could go to Catholic school. The pastor insisted we all go.”
Tuition money was found, and the Adams family continued its parochial schooling. It was that experience — being destitute, getting help — that inspired Adams to become a priest.
He studied social work in college. His first assignment was as a psychiatric social worker at a Chicago hospital that was home to 500 children. By the early 1970s he was working with homeless men and families in Alexandria, Va.
In 1974 he was invited to lend a hand to a fledgling operation that had been launched four years earlier by the Rev. Horace McKenna. He would hand out sandwiches from the back door of the rectory at Gonzaga, the Jesuit boys school on North Capitol Street.
The operation — So Others Might Eat — needed more space, so it relocated to that former animal shelter. Under Adams, it started to expand its scope, too.
Adams thought involving others would help. He composed a letter to local Catholic parishes inviting them to provide one meal a month. His board of directors wondered why he planned to send it only to Catholic churches.
“I said, ‘Well, I don’t know any Protestant places. I don’t know any Jewish people,’ ” Adams remembered. “Give me names.” (Such was the insularity of many Catholic clergy at the time.)
A broader mailing list was assembled and today, SOME is nondenominational, with volunteers from many faiths — and corporations, too. Last year, more than 380,000 meals were served at its dining room and in its other programs.
Next came a dental clinic and a medical clinic to serve those who couldn’t afford health care. Last year, there were 8,493 visits to a doctor or dentist in SOME’s clinics.
“A lot of people were alcoholic,” Adams said. “There were a lot of drugs going on in the city. So we started a pretty good program and have really advanced it quite a bit now.” Last year, 241 men and women engaged with SOME’s addiction recovery services.
Of course, there was something else, something obvious.
“When you’re homeless, you need a home,” Adams said.
That was the next initiative, started in 1989. In 2016, 146 families with 336 children, as well as 543 single adults, lived in safe, affordable housing provided by SOME.
On the wall in Adams’s office is a tapestry embroidered with a passage from Isaiah 58: “I want you to share your bread with the hungry, open your homes to the homeless, remove the yoke of injustice, let the oppressed go free.”
I asked Adams why he chose that particular verse to adorn his wall.
“Because that’s really what we’re all about,” he said.
The SOME dining room is open today, Thanksgiving. It will serve holiday meals to nearly 1,200 people. They will give thanks.
There’s something you can give, too: a gift to So Others Might Eat. To donate online, visit posthelpinghand.com and click on “Donate.” To donate 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.