“I just wanted her to have a good send-off,” Cox says. “I didn’t want any extra burden on her.”
That frigid November night, after everyone said their goodbyes and headed home, he went to the one public place he knew offered warmth: The ATM lobby at his bank in downtown Washington.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to talk about it,” Cox tells me on a recent morning. “Sometimes it’s difficult to think about how you felt at that time. After a while, I said, ‘I’m sleeping at the ATM machine.’ I thought, ‘This is how low I’ve come.’ I thought of all the other homeless people I would see, passing by them and having conversations with them, and now I knew exactly how they felt.”
On Friday, Cox started a new and important job, taking on a role that, at once, is distant from the night he slept in a bank lobby and a unique fit because of it. The 54-year-old is the newest executive director of Charlie’s Place, a drop-in center for the homeless in Northwest Washington.
He steps into that position just six years after first walking into the place as a homeless man.
Not long after that night next to the ATM, he started sleeping on benches in Lafayette Square. There, he met a police officer who told him about Charlie’s Place, an outreach arm of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church. He says he didn’t go that day. But eventually, he walked through the doors, seeking a hot meal.
Soon, he started coming more frequently, and then he began volunteering to help in whatever way he could. Within a year, he was hired as a floor coordinator. And for the past two years, he has worked as a program manager.
In an announcement released by the church this past week, the Rev. Richard Mosson Weinberg wrote that once the search began for new leadership, “it quickly became obvious that we need not look any further than Reggie.”
“He is a compassionate advocate for our guests, and his direct experience with us combined with his professional background in public relations made him uniquely positioned to take on this leadership role,” the announcement reads.
When I call Weinberg, he describes Cox as “compassionate” and “a calming spirit.”
“It’s so clear that he’s there because he feels called to be there,” he says. “It’s not work for him. It’s a vocation in that real sense of the word. Theologians describe vocation as that intersection of the gifts we have and the world’s needs.”
On an average day, about 60 people might come to the Connecticut Avenue space to get a hot meal or pick up a bagged lunch. They can also get haircuts, case management help and new clothes, and can take part in programs such as art therapy and a writing workshop. And all of that is offered by volunteers and a small staff — two full-time and three part-time employees — working off a budget of about $250,000 that comes mostly from donations and grants. The church hopes to ultimately raise enough to add a bilingual staff member.
Weinberg says Charlie’s Place sees people who are chronically homeless and will always need that hot meal, and people who come and experience life changes.
Cox, he says, defies so many stereotypes people have of the homeless. Among them: They all have addictions or aren’t well educated or possess criminal records or have family members who don’t care about them.
It’s easier and more comfortable to think of the homeless as starkly different from the rest of us.
It is true that addictions, family trauma and untreated mental illness too often yank people from a stable place and toss them into an unfamiliar, unnerving one. But sometimes — as was the case with Cox — it doesn’t take yanking or tossing for a person to go from housed to homeless. Sometimes, a person can stand still and watch the walls around them fall away.
Cox, the son of a professor and a nurse, says he never struggled with addiction and doesn’t have a criminal record (which a public records search confirms). Growing up, he mostly attended private schools and spent his junior and senior years at boarding school. He says he took some college courses but didn’t get a degree (a regret of his) because he chose instead to work.
He had worked for a media monitoring business for 14 years when, he says, in 2012, the company started laying off the staff, one by one, before closing its D.C. office. In the months that followed, he says, he went from renting an apartment on Capitol Hill to paying a friend for a room to sleeping next to that ATM.
He still had money in his account at that point, but he didn’t want to spend it all on housing because he didn’t know when he might find another job.
When he was working, he used to eat lunch in Lafayette Square and wonder whether the homeless people he saw around him also slept there at night. He later found out from his own bench-turned-bed that they did.
He recalls the first time he walked into Charlie’s Place. It aims to be a no-questions-asked safe space, and he immediately noticed the laid-back atmosphere.
“I remember sleeping because it was such a calming place,” he says. “I remember feeling comfortable, real comfortable there.”
Cox says he is excited to take on his new role as executive director.
“My ultimate goal is to make their lives better and to be an inspiration,” he says.
For the six months he was homeless, none of his friends or relatives knew what he was going through. Only recently did he tell his sister and his best friend, and even then, he was vague. In that way, he’s still protecting them from a burden. But when he talks to people at Charlie’s Place, whether it’s a volunteer or someone who walks in hungry, he shares his story.
He also listens to theirs. In the time he has spent there, he says, the most surprising part has been learning about the lives people once had. He has met a banker, a diplomat’s son and a star soccer player who was featured in The Washington Post.
“Mr. Reggie, that was a long time ago,” he recalls the soccer star telling him when he mentioned his past.
He understands better than anyone that some people may not be ready to talk about where they’ve been or where they are now. He doesn’t push them.
He just reminds them: “Your story is not over. My story is not over.”