As a young man, Clifford Rowe played bass for Elvis Presley, performing on glittering stages across the United States.
As an old man, he slept on a park bench two blocks from his childhood home in Northeast Washington, wrapped in a military sleeping bag, his beloved guitars cinched to his waist with bungee cords.
A performer with a heavy travel schedule, he never stayed in town long enough to get a place of his own. The years wore away. Elvis died on Rowe’s 37th birthday. Rowe’s mom sold the family house and moved south. Heroin entered his life. “I started renting rooms, putting my things in storage, losing things.”
So the fact that Rowe, now 76, was relaxing this week in his own recliner in an apartment that is all his was, he said, “like a gift from heaven.”
Rowe is one of 60 homeless veterans in the District who are moving into permanent housing in the John and Jill Ker Conway Residence, an architect-designed building that officially opened on Thursday. The first of its kind in the city, it was constructed with a combination of federal, city, private and nonprofit funds. The $33 million building houses 124 one-bedroom efficiency apartments, including 64 additional affordable and low-income units.
The veterans pay 30 percent of their income as rent and have on-site supportive services such as social workers, job and education counseling, and mental health specialists. Their average age is 62, and their services are coordinated by case managers who work directly with the D.C. Veterans Administration Medical Center staff.
The building, designed by Sorg Architects, an international firm with offices in D.C., appears to be just one of a handful in the country created with homeless vets in mind. Most efforts involve moving people into existing residences.
The new residence offers an uncommon solution to a national problem, said Rosanne Haggerty, president of Community Solutions, its co-sponsor and co-developer. It “plays a critical part in helping a city end veteran homelessness,” she said.
Eight years in the planning, the project benefited from the Obama administration’s focus on ending veteran homelessness as well as increased efforts by the city to house homeless vets, said D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). Calling the project a model for other cities, she said she hoped the Trump administration would support similar efforts.
“The timing of this, a week before the transition of power, serves to highlight the role that our federal government has in ending veteran homelessness,” she said.
The federal government already provides housing vouchers for homeless veterans, which are allocated through the D.C. Housing Authority, but it can be hard to persuade landlords to accept tenants who have no solid rental or employment backgrounds. A separate city-administered residence in Columbia Heights houses 40 formerly homeless veterans, but it focuses on eventually moving people on to other housing, unlike at Conway, where the homes are designed to be permanent and residents have leases.
Such efforts have helped reduce the city’s homeless veteran population. There were 350 on a given night in January of last year, according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development count — about a third lower than in 2010. Last year ended with about 300 veterans still homeless, including the 60 who started moving into Conway just before Christmas.
The 14-story building on North Capitol Street, 10 blocks north of the Capitol, includes some handicapped-accessible units and has sweeping views of the NoMa area.
For James Rogers, 59, those views reflect his life story. He grew up a couple of blocks away, in a house on what is now the 50-yard line of the Gonzaga High School football field.
As a boy, he handed out bread and clothing for the nearby St. Aloysius Church; as a young man he served six years in the National Guard. He returned to his neighborhood, couldn’t find work after getting injured on a construction job, and started selling drugs.
“My homelessness started when I started using,” said Rogers, a beefy man with a shy, sweet smile. He started sleeping in abandoned buildings around the neighborhood. “I didn’t like it. I tried to keep it a secret; I didn’t want anybody to know.” He’d go back to his mother’s to take a shower and eat something, and let her think he was staying with girlfriends. “A lot of lying,” he said. “A lot of lying.”
For two decades he slept on the streets or in crack houses. After a stint in a drug rehab program (which he entered only because he’d heard the accommodations were nice), he kicked his habit and began working for the downtown business improvement district and other organizations that offered services to homeless people.
He alternated between living on the street and in temporary shelters — including a halfway house and a nursing home, after he had some medical issues. But nothing lasting. And he was getting older, and tired of always moving.
So when a caseworker told him about Conway, he grabbed the opportunity, and three weeks ago he moved in.
That day was pure joy. “I’m still riding off that — it’s almost like getting high off cocaine, but it’s better.” A fat tear slid down his cheek. “I’m grateful to be here and I’m going to help take care of this building because ten years, twenty years from now, I want it to still look the way it looks now.”
The building’s design encourages involvement — a lounge looks out onto an outdoor terrace, with the laundry room attached, so residents can sit on couches or patio furniture while they wait for their wash. A large multipurpose room will house activities such as art classes, speakers and yoga classes.
Administrators hope the residents’ mirrored life stories will help them bond. Mike Taylor, 62, who was an Army medic in the early 1970s, moved in just before Christmas and has found common ground with his neighbors. “We all sit down and tell war stories,” he said. “A lot of them were in Vietnam, and I appreciate hearing what they went through.”
The building is also meant to be connected to the larger community. A commercial space downstairs will likely house a business that encourages socializing, such as a cafe, and administrators hope to arrange tours of the neighboring NPR studios.
After years of living in a place with no heat, water or electricity, Taylor said having his own space feels like freedom. “It’s just a sense of lightness, you know, pressure off me. If I want to get up at two in the morning and fix me a nine-course meal, I can do that.”
Rogers has already hosted his sisters in his new pad. “They’re happy for me, they’re so happy for me.” As for a housewarming, he said, “All my relatives are putting [in] together and they’re getting all the stuff that they think I’ll need.”
Speaking of stuff, Clifford Rowe lost a lot when he was homeless, but he never lost those guitars.
Now, in his light-filled living room, he bent down gingerly — his back was damaged in a parachute jump when he was in the 101st Airborne Division — and took a 1968 Gibson Les Paul out of its case and held it like a newborn — a heavy solid-wood newborn.
“This was a present from my mom, so I vowed I’d never get rid of it,” he said. Turning it over, he showed where he’d etched his name and Social Security number on the back.
“I made damn sure it was secure, he said. “And that was not easy to do.”