Antonio said he doesn’t like going to the homeless shelter, because when he stays there he’s surrounded by “a bunch of old men.”
Wait a minute, I jokingly protested. I’m an old man.
Antonio chuckled. He’s 21.
“You don’t smell like sweat and underarms,” said Angel, describing the atmosphere of most homeless shelters. She’s 20.
We were seated in a conference room at Sasha Bruce Youthwork, one of the charities I hope readers will support in this year’s Washington Post Helping Hand fundraising campaign. The others are Community of Hope, which works with homeless District families, and Homestretch, which works with homeless families in Northern Virginia.
Antonio wanted to explain. “When I say a bunch of old men, I mean a bunch of old men that don’t really want nothing more in life,” he said. “They been at the shelter for years. They already made up in their minds: ‘This is all I got left.’ ”
He described the rhythm he witnessed when he stayed at one of the city’s adult men’s homeless shelters: Turned out at 6:30 in the morning, welcomed back at 6 p.m. The day spent hanging around nearby. The highest goal: a bed. A goal so important that Antonio would watch men come to blows over it, fighting over something that wasn’t even their own.
This isn’t what Antonio wants for himself.
It isn’t what any of the homeless people I’ve met want, the teens and young adults served by Sasha Bruce or the families that have fallen on hard times and are being helped by Community of Hope and Homestretch.
“I really dislike that people judge us,” said Angel, who said she has had to sleep in abandoned houses. “I’m homeless. But actually, homeless people are really smart.”
“I think homeless people are strong,” said Jaquilia, 23, who said she sometimes sleeps outside Union Station. “People think it’s easy. It’s actually hard living out here.”
I try to imagine what it would be like if it happened to me, if the circumstances of my birth, or a rough childhood, a medical emergency, an interrupted education, a lost job or any other unforeseen (or sadly foreseen) stumble left me with nowhere to live and no one to turn to for help.
I hope I would be as resourceful as these three young people, who sat with me recently at Sasha Bruce Youthwork’s drop-in center on Eighth Street SE, a place where homeless youths can take a shower, wash their clothes, get a meal and safely take a nap.
Over the next eight weeks, I’ll be sharing stories of the people your tax-deductible Helping Hand donation will help. Our goal is to raise $225,000 by the time the campaign ends on Jan. 6.
What our three groups have in common — chosen in 2014 out of hundreds of D.C.-area nonprofits that applied to The Post — is that they all address the problems that made their clients homeless in the first place. Although all three of the Helping Hand nonprofits organize housing, they don’t provide only a place to stay. They jump-start their client’s lives in ways that are hopefully more lasting, with such support as GED classes, life-skills classes, job training and therapy.
As the temperatures get colder, as the holidays approach, as we prepare for the quadrennial changing of the political guard, I hope you will consider making a gift to one of the Helping Hand charities. To donate online to any of these groups, visit posthelpinghand.com. Here’s how to donate by mail:
Make a check payable to “Sasha Bruce Youthwork” and mail it to: Sasha Bruce Youthwork, 741 Eighth St. SE, Washington, D.C. 20003. Attention: James Beck.
Make a check payable to “Community of Hope” and mail it to: Community of Hope, Attn: Helping Hand, 4 Atlantic St. SW, Washington, D.C. 20032.
Make a check payable to “Homestretch” and mail it to: Homestretch, 303 S. Maple Ave., Falls Church, Va. 22046, Attn: Nan Monday.
What Antonio fears is that he might one day be one of those old men, devoid of hope, fighting over a bed. He’s determined not to let that happen. They all are.
“I’m motivated to get off these streets,” Jaquilia said. “Because it’s not healthy. It’s easy to get into stuff on the streets. It’s easy to get in and it’s hard to get out.”
Hard, but not impossible.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.