Donna-Marie Thompson, a volunteer and in-kind donations manager at N Street Village, shows off a snazzy coat donated for the charity's annual coat drive on Nov. 2. Each year, hundreds of homeless women are given coats at the charity's headquarters at 14th and N streets NW in Washington. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

It’s the first Friday in November, and the day is unseasonably warm with a high temperature that’s predicted to be in the low 70s. It seems like exactly the wrong kind of weather to hand out winter coats to women who don’t have them.

But Donna-Marie Thompson says it’s perfect. Better to hand out coats too soon than too late.

“You wouldn’t want it to be cold for two weeks,” says Thompson, 30, the volunteer and in-kind donations manager for N Street Village, a charity that helps women experiencing homelessness in the District.

The coat drive is an annual affair, an opportunity for the clients that N Street Village serves to enter the winter warmly. The nonprofit has been gathering coats since the summer. The result is 255 coats arranged on tables and hanging from racks in a multipurpose room in N Street Village’s headquarters at 14th and N NW.

There are long coats and short ones, somber ones and colorful ones, puffy nylon ones and soft wool ones.


Carlita Walker, a volunteer at N Street Village, with some coats donated for the charity's coat drive. Walker herself is a former client of the organization. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

Some coats are brand-new with tags hanging from their sleeves. Others are “gently loved.” Volunteers have gone through these secondhand garments to make sure they’re up to snuff, that zippers work and buttons are all present and accounted for.

Each year, nearly 2,000 women are served by N Street Village’s various programs. That includes five residential centers, including Patricia Handy Place, an emergency shelter in Chinatown; Miriam’s House, for women living with HIV; and the organization’s headquarters near Thomas Circle, where there are 51 units of affordable housing for families, 44 units of permanent supportive housing, a dozen units for women in recovery and nine for those with mental health needs.

There’s also a day center where women can get a meal and get out of the cold.

Carlita Walker, 59, has been volunteering at N Street Village since 2008. She leads two classes: “All About Me,” in which women share their stories, and “Day by Day,” a discussion of current events. Before that, she was a client.

Walker remembers her first coat drive: “It was amazing,” she says. “I saw so many coats. And so many clients like myself. All of us had a coat. I was so satisfied.

“Just being here, they give you so much love, so much hope. I’m very proud of myself. My goal was housing and I wanted to gain my independence. And I did.”

What do women look for in a coat? Warmth, mostly.

“Style cannot save your life,” Walker says.

“Cute is nice, but functional is better,” Thompson echoes.

And yet . . .

Some of the women served by N Street Village already have a warm coat and are now looking for a job and want appropriate outerwear for that. And sometimes, fashion calls.

“Someone is going to love that,” Thompson says, looking at a funky floor-length coat in bright green. “They’re going to stand out in the crowd. It has so much character.”

Not every woman can pull off a coat like that, but soon a tall woman puts it on. On her, it works.

In another part of the room, Dana Silva, 47, has donned a dark, puffy waist-length coat that fits her slim frame nicely.

“It’s me,” she says.

Silva has been an N Street Village client for a year-and-a-half.

“Anybody can come here,” she says. “You don’t have to be a member. Anyone can come who’s cold and hungry. Everyone knows what it’s like to be cold and hungry. It doesn’t discriminate.”

Another shuttle bus has arrived outside, dropping off N Street Village clients who have been picked up around town.

“Game faces, everybody,” someone says. “Where’s the music?”

An iPhone is plugged into a little speaker.

Thompson surveys the scene.

“I want to ring a bell when we make a match on the first try,” she says.

How to help

In addition to a coat, each woman received gloves and a hat, too. That’s all some women want. But the hope is that as they learn about N Street Village — visiting its day center, accepting a coat — the likelier they’ll be to participate in the other programs it offers.

You can help support these programs by giving to N Street Village, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand. To support its vital work, visit posthelpinghand.com. To donate by mail, make a check payable to N Street Village and send it to N Street Village, Attn: Helping Hand, 1333 N St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20005.

Father fix

In yesterday’s column I misidentified one of the priests from St. Matthew’s Cathedral dispatched to the White House on Nov. 22, 1963, to await John F. Kennedy’s body. It was Father John G. Kuhn, not Hugo Kuhn, who went with Rick Duhn to the White House. Kuhn, who became a monsignor in 1970 and founded Anchor Mental Health, died in 2005.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.