Wesley Thomas may possess a distinction no one would ever desire: homeless in Washington longer than anyone.

“I spent 29 winters on the street,” Thomas said.

Gripped by addiction and mental illness, Thomas spent nearly three decades without a home, first sleeping in Lafayette Square, then in Washington Circle. He was on the streets so long that he became good at it, adept in the skills required to survive the punishing weather, the random violence and the crushing loneliness.

Thomas emerged from those years with what he calls “learned experience.” He emerged with something else, too: a desire to help others the way Miriam’s Kitchen helped him.

Miriam’s Kitchen — a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand — is the nonprofit that fed Thomas when he was hungry and then helped usher him into his own apartment.

Today, Thomas talks with people still on the streets — checking on them as he walks around the city — and with groups that want to learn about homelessness and how to end it.

“I’m not an eloquent speaker,” he told me, “but I get the point across.”

Thomas is 59, a native Washingtonian who grew up in Northeast. He said he fell in with the wrong crowd in college, abusing drugs and alcohol and becoming estranged from his family. When he lost his home in 1988, he wound up at Lafayette Square, across from the White House.

That’s where he was shown the ropes by others experiencing homelessness.

“We all slept at the President’s Church,” Thomas said, referring to St. John’s. “We slept there every night.”

In the morning, they showed him where to get breakfast: Miriam’s Kitchen in Western Presbyterian Church, then in the 1900 block of H Street NW.

“People lined up at the top of the steps and went down the stairs,” Thomas said. “There was a big pot of boiled eggs. You got two boiled eggs, a cup of coffee and Kool-Aid in a Styrofoam cup.”

You got something else: community.

By 1994, the church had moved to Foggy Bottom. Miriam’s Kitchen moved with it. So did Thomas, who slept in Washington Circle and panhandled near the Foggy Bottom Metro station. He found the George Washington University students friendly.

“They would have a conversation with me, like I’m a human being,” he said. “They would break bread with me. When it was cold, they would ask, ‘Do you want thermals?’ I had this rapport with them.”

When Thomas could save his money, he would pay for a night at a motel on Route 1 in Northern Virginia. But often, he would sleep outside.

“First you have to place down cardboard, like insulation,” he explained. “Then you have to have a warm blanket.”

Some blankets look warmer than they are.

“Those hypothermia blankets? They’re no good if you’re drinking,” he said. “A person will freeze to death.”

Atop the blanket, Thomas would crawl inside two sleeping bags that he’d zipped together.

“It’s a craft,” he said. “We used to say we were trailblazers. Most people, they get cold, they go into the shelter.”

Thomas never felt safe in a shelter, so he slept on the streets, usually in a group of six or seven people. That protected them against attacks.

By 2016, a lot of the people Thomas knew from Lafayette Square and Washington Circle had found housing or were dead — from drugs, hypothermia or violence.

“My addiction had consumed me,” Thomas said. “I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. When it got to the point where I am in my 50s, I said, ‘What am I doing? I can’t do this anymore.’ ”

He last used drugs or alcohol in May 2016.

Thomas had watched Lindsay Curtin, who was then director of outreach at Miriam’s Kitchen, help a friend of his find an apartment. He realized that gaining permanent supportive housing — navigating the disability paperwork, qualifying for the housing voucher — was a skill, just like surviving the streets was a skill.

Miriam’s Kitchen helped him. In May 2017, Thomas moved into a studio apartment near the zoo. He is a model tenant, who enjoys reading. (“Patricia Cornwell, that’s my favorite novelist,” he said.)

Thomas still visits the streets, handing out socks and underwear — something that people experiencing homelessness need more than food, he said — and he proselytizes.

“I have enough information in my head to help people,” he said.

He knows his old friends from the street see him and think, “If Wes found a home after 29 years, maybe I can, too.”

Helping Hand

You can help people too, by donating to Miriam’s Kitchen through The Washington Post Helping Hand, our annual reader fund drive.

To donate online, visit posthelpinghand.com. To give by check, write Miriam’s Kitchen, Attn: Development, 2401 Virginia Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20037.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.