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  • At the reception last night, my friend Paul was talking about where he lived during the months before he finally found recovery, and eventually met his future wife, who was sitting with us. The way she looked at him, I got the impression he might not have mentioned this to her before. He had been living under the bleachers of a nearby ball field.

    I spent 2 months homeless when I went AWOL from the Navy back in the 70’s. I actually had 3 different jobs during that time – I just didn’t have a place to live, a solid roof over my head. I was on the Lam, and had to keep moving, and didn’t want anyone to know where I was until I was ready to turn myself in to authorities. I spent a couple weeks living in an abandoned gas station, I slept in the restaurant I was working in for awhile, and I spent a lot of nights sleeping under the stars in my sleeping bag, not too far off the road that I was travelling back and forth across the country on. There was actually one beautiful, memorable night in that bag up on a mountain, on a stone slab overlooking a river valley, with a beautiful girl I'd met along the road and a bottle of wine - but, that's another story. Most of the time, it was not very beautiful out there. It was pretty tough.

    When I went to work for the Office of Public Health Science 10 years ago, my mentor there, the lady who was “succession planning” her job down to me, spent several months showing me everything she did. How she wrote up the reports on all of our scientific initiatives to be included in our budget submissions that went to Congress with the “Explanatory Notes” each year, and how she answered Congressional Questions about those submissions the following spring when they came in, as they figured out our appropriations for the following year. She showed me how we coordinate all of the resource requirements for the 4 major agency laboratories around the country, where all the meat samples were sent for tesing and analysis for the various pathogens we were looking for in the meat. Twice a week, at least, we would walk from our offices in the Aerospace Center across from L’enfant Plaza, up Independence Avenue to the main Agriculture Headquarters Building at 12th and Independence Aveunes (the building actually spans 2 large city blocks, all the way up to 14th and Independence).

    On the way, we always passed a veteran street person – but we never passed him without a few words, and without taking the time to listen to what he had to say. His name was Travis. Mary Lou knew this. She also knew what size boots he wore. “How are your boots holding up?” He lifted one foot, looked, and said, “Not too badly – getting a little worn in the large toe spot”. Indeed, there was the beginning of a hole there. She just nodded and said, “See you next week, Travis.”

    The following Wednesday, she couldn’t make it in to work. She was battling cancer, and having a bad reaction to her treatments. She called and said I’d have to cover the meeting with the senior managers on my own that day. She also asked me to get a bag from her office, and give it to Travis when I went by him on the way over. It was a pair of size 11 ½, Thom McCann work boots – the same kind Travis had been wearing the week before.
  • I stopped on the way to the meeting, and told Travis that Mary Lou had asked me to give these to him. He was most appreciative. I asked him if he wanted to put them on, and I could take his old ones away, but he said that he was going to wait and put them on later, and try to break them in a little before he wore them full-time. “I spend a lot of time on my feet each day, so I have to take care of them.”

    For the next 6 years, I always checked in with Travis on the condition of his footwear, as I made my way up Independence Avenue to my senior briefings, and when it was time for new boots, I gladly got them for him. I took this “task” as part of the job I had picked up when Mary Lou retired. Her “succession planning” was very thorough, like that. I took it seriously. I got to know Travis well. He was a good man.

    When J.B. was in high school, the church we went to, a Unitarian Universalist congregation, would have a Youth Social Justice service weekend in early December at the William Penn House on Capital Hill in D.C. About 30 teens, along with several adult chaperones, including myself, would go down there on a Friday night, where a facilitator from the Quaker-run house would talk to them about the next day’s service project. One year, we all went to an elderly couple’s house on the other end of town to help complete a variety of home repair jobs needed there. This year, we were going to go to the largest shelter in D.C., actually, in the country, the next day, to work with the homeless folks there, and to help out with the shelter for the day. The facilitator was talking to the kids about their ideas on homelessness. He did a good job at getting everyone to talk about how they felt about it, and how they felt about homeless people.
  • Earlier in the evening, as we all were arriving, there was some confusion and lots of people coming and going. I arrived with a car load of kids, as did several other adults, and there was another church from the Shenandoah Valley joining us for the weekend, as well. I didn’t know everyone from that church. There was one guy who had come in, as we all were arriving, who I just assumed was one of the adults from the other church. He was with us all evening, interacting with everyone, and I noticed, being very observant. At one point, as the facilitator led the discussion with the kids, he asked the guy to come up and talk to us. As it turned out, he was actually homeless, himself. When he had come in, he had talked to the facilitator, told him who he was, and had asked if there was any work that needed to be done. The facilitator had asked if he could hang around for the evening, and be willing to talk to some teenagers about what it was like to be homeless. He had agreed to do this. He in turn got to eat with us, and the house would have some work for him the next day.

    When he started speaking, the change that came over that room was amazing. Here, we had been having this theoretical discussion about homelessness, and everyone talking about how they felt about it, and he had been quietly listening to it all, and now he was ready to talk to the group. He had actually been a college graduate, had a Master’s degree from the University of Maryland, but he ran into some problems, and at one point, just dropped out of society. He had been living on the streets, and in shelters, for 7 years at that point. He was very honest, and very frank. He told us that the hardest part about being homeless was, you felt like you were invisible. People acted like you didn’t exist. They tried to pretend you weren’t there. He said that the thing he appreciated the most was when someone would stop and take the time to just talk to him, and treat him like another human being.

    I was so impressed by how this facilitator had handled this situation, and I believe that most of those teenagers would never see a homeless person quite the same way again, after this man had talked to them for about a half hour that evening. I know it changed how I look at them. It might be a little easier for me, since I once was one of them, and that is an experience you never fully forget.
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