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My Year of Giving was a life-changing event. I could have never in a million years imagined before I gave away my first ten-dollar bill on Dec. 15, 2009 how the journey would change my life. One of the amazing 365 people I met during that year was Anthony. Our lives crossed paths on Day 67.

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Anthony & Me on our first day of our project. (Photo: Reed Sandridge)

In two weeks it will be three years since I started the project. A lot has changed. I am now employed, I can’t walk around my neighborhood without seeing somebody I gave $10 to and I have an entirely new perspective on giving. Life is pretty good.

Many of you have encouraged me to put this story into a book. I’ve started that – well, I am trying to do this at least. It’s harder than it sounds to dedicate time to writing – especially when you are often tired from your day job. But I am committed to finishing the book. But I thought I would enlist some help. That’s when I turned to my friend.

Anthony has been homeless for nearly 10 years in our nation’s capital. One of the first Street Sense vendors, vendor number 5 to be exact, Anthony doesn’t let the fact that he can not afford housing get him down. He works Monday through Friday at the corner of 19th and M selling the paper. But his dream is to have his own apartment and I have wanted to help him achieve that goal for some time.

Anthony offered to help me stay on track with my writing. You know, sometimes you just need someone to be accountable to. In return I am trying to help him get housing. If this sounds simple – keep in mind that I don’t know anything about helping someone get off the streets and Anthony hasn’t a clue about what it takes to get a book published. But that hasn’t stopped us.

We are working to achieve our goal by the end of 2013 – and with a lot of hard work, collaboration between Anthony and me, and possibly your help too – we just might make it! If you would like to follow our journey – drop by and say hello at AthonyAndMe.com.

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Before I share with you my amazing volunteer experience at Miriam’s Kitchen here in Washington, DC, I want to introduce you to a very important person at the Year of Giving.  His name is Kyle.

A photo of Kyle when I met him back in October of 2010.

Some of you might remember him from Day 311 last year when I gave him my $10 for the day after seeing him do a stand-up routine at a local open mic night.  He recently graduated from the University of New Hampshire and completed an internship here in Washington, DC at a talk news radio station.

The Year of Giving has grown and around the beginning of this year I realized I needed some help.  Kyle volunteered to be the Web Editor and help keep the daily blog posts coming.  In addition to volunteering with the Year of Giving, he’s currently looking for magazine or internet related journalism work in New Hampshire, Washington, DC or potentially other areas of the country.  Please reach out and let him know if you have any connections or ideas for him.  Although he has worked in news, I know that he is also very interested in music and film journalism.

DSC_0038.jpgSo back to today’s volunteer experience.  I was so impressed when I walked into Miriam’s Kitchen.  It was warm, not because of the ovens but because of the love.  I was almost immediately met by Ashley, the Development and Volunteer Manager.  She gave me, and the other 8-10 volunteers for the day, an overview of the 28-year-old organization.  “We like to bring people in through our healthy great tasting food,” she said going on to add that their guests usually stay and utilize the many other services available to their guests.  There was a station full of donated personal hygiene products, a security guard who also gives a hell of a sharp-looking haircut, case managers, legal assistance, access to healthcare, etc.  “A lot of our guests don’t have a physical address so we allow them to have mail sent here too,” she added.

I strapped on a blue or purple apron (I’m color-blind, so who knows which one it was) and was sent to help out Chef Tom.  He had me preparing some home-made chicken and duck stock.  After that I helped wash some of the items used earlier that morning and get them put away.  After the kitchen was in good shape it was time to go out and work the front side of the house.

The inviting dining room had about 25 tables, all with fresh flowers on them, some of them even had cards and games on them.  The walls were covered with art work from the guests.  “It’s a fun environment,” Ashley said as smiling staff members and volunteers started to greet guests making their way in out of the cold.  I was assigned to the personal hygiene station and got to interact with several of the guests who needed essential items such as multi vitamins, deodorant, toothpaste, shaving supplies, condoms, etc.  Everything of course is free for the guests; however, they are limited to receiving a reasonable amount of the items.

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Just one of the delicious items being prepared at Miriam's Kitchen.

Ashley then asked if I would help refill juice cups to those who were seated eating their lunch.  This got me circulating a bit more and I was able to spot some familiar faces: Jim M., Lionel and Bill C. I spent some time speaking with each of them and will update you in the coming weeks on how these 2010 YOGIs are doing.

Lunch came to an end and the dining area transformed into an art center with several of the guests busy working on projects.  Bill was working on a new painting.  “I’m not sure what it is going to be yet,” he told me as he applied some broad strokes to the canvas.  He showed me several of his pieces which were going to be highlighted in an art show being held the following day at Miriam’s.

DSC_0022.jpgMy shift ended and I cleaned up and said my goodbyes.  I walked out into the brisk afternoon, the sun warming my face as I headed north along 24th Street.  I was impressed by how well the staff seemed to know the guests.  “Yesterday we had 212 guests for breakfast,” Ashley told me earlier, “and our case managers knew all but three of them by name.”  Everyone there seemed happy.  It was almost family-like.

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Reed finishing up in the kitchen.

This appears to be a really well run operation.  That being said, they rely on support from volunteers and donations.  If you live in the DC area you can check their list of volunteer needs.  In addition to your time they need lots of items for their guests such as: gloves, socks, long johns, sleeping bags, jackets, yarn, crazy glue, Crayola markers.  If you would like to donate any of these items, reach out to me and I can see that they get there.  If you would prefer, you can also make a financial contribution.

Thanks to Ashley and everyone at Miriam’s!  You guys are awesome.

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Being a Kindness Investor is a very interesting study in human nature. Especially my own. Especially when I allow myself to follow my gut and not my mind’s predetermined plan. For instance, my intention to give away my fifth $10 was specific: I was on my way to Ray’s, a well-known Seattle restaurant with a breath-taking view of the Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. On my way, I kept catching glimpses of an exceptionally clear, majestic day which was hosting glistening water and a horizon boasting one long dance of snow-capped peaks.

 

John holding his newspapers in front of his truck.

As I descended off a main road, preparing to make a left turn under a bridge to get to Ray’s, there stood John at the corner, several cars ahead of me. In that instant, my plans completely changed. I had to talk to him.

 

I made a U-turn, and then pulled around and under the bridge to park. John was clearly a bit confused as to why I was getting out of my car and approaching him. I’m sure I’d seen him before at this well-traveled intersection, but until that day, I never saw him.

John is one of hundreds of Seattle’s homeless people who sell Real Change, a weekly newspaper dedicated to advancing not only the facts (instead of assumptions) about those who are living on the streets, but also providing a safe and legitimate way for them to make money (as opposed to holding a sign or otherwise asking passers-by for spare change). When I meet a person who is offering this newspaper and asking that I purchase it for $1, I also see a badge which indicates that s/he is a bona fide participant in the Real Change extended family.

On the day I met John, the wind seemed to gather even more momentum as it whipped around the cement columns and twist through the underpass where we spoke. John’s pickup was parked near the corner where he stood patiently, albeit freezing, hoping that those who were sitting snugly in their cars would not ignore him at the stop light and perhaps buy his newspaper.

John was more than happy to accept my $10. He pointed to his truck. “I’ll probably buy some gas for my truck or propane because I live in the back-in the camper. There are a few of us who park over there in an empty parking lot at night and we use the propane to keep warm. No, I don’t light the propane in my camper,” he continued as my brow knitted in obvious concern.

“I’ve been homeless for about 12 years. I’m 43 and it all began after a very bad divorce. I lost everything, including my daughter.” John had lived a warm and productive life in Tennessee where he had a business – a store which sold everything from carpet to hardware supplies.

“We lived on a 12 and a half-acre farm. My ex-wife and her family are rich. But they wanted me gone and to keep me down. So here I am.”

I was struck by John’s optimism and confidence. Throughout our conversation he quoted several verses from the Bible which punctuated a point he was trying to make. His breath left a wake of steam as he spoke.

“I really need a job. I have a lot of experience doing many things. So if you or anyone you know needs help with building or painting or any of that kind of thing, please think of me.” John ran back to his truck and returned with a one page resume which was clean and professional. “They help us with our resumes at the office (of Real Change).”

When I asked him about staying at homeless shelters, he didn’t actually diss them but offered his own observation. “In a shelter they label you.  You’re a drug addict, or an alcoholic, or just plain crazy. Hey, I’m just out of work. Besides, I like living and sleeping in my own place – as humble as it is.” He gestured to his truck again.

Throughout the years, John had been to Texas where he worked off-shore on a boat fishing, but that didn’t stick as two of the guys were drunks. He had part-time job at the post office and then decided to move to California.  There, he had a sleeping bag, a tarp, and a man who helped him out by hiring him for some construction jobs.

He was quick to give the staff of Real Change a lot of credit. “This newspaper and the organization – what they do – has helped me in so many ways. I’ve been able to buy clothes and food because of it. They give me four papers free and I buy the rest for $.35 a paper. I sell it for $1, so I make $.65 off each one.”

While John’s day was just beginning, my ear lobes were bright red and my nose was running from the biting cold. And I grew up in Minnesota where this day’s weather was SOP!

I asked if he could use a blanket. “Always,” he replied with a smile. I ran back to my car and pulled a small blanket out of my emergency car kit and handed it to him. Then I remembered that I needed to buy the paper. I offered John $5 for a copy of his Real Change, he said no-I’d already given him $10!

“That was a Kindness Investor gift. This is for the paper. And since I don’t have change, please take the $5.” He did.

A hug and “good luck” was the only appropriate way to say good-bye to John. He smiled and waved as I climbed back into my car and hit the fan which blew warm air over my face and hands.

Driving home I was once again overwhelmed with gratitude and happiness. Not because I was returning to my own warm home with (some) food in the fridge and an inviting bed. I was grateful that I met John and had an opportunity to learn about him, his life, and ambitions. He really does have a striking resume. I hope I will someday be in a position to hire him. That would make me even more happy.

-Petra from Seattle, WA

 

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Today I went to donate blood and was on my way home when I saw a man named “Happy Pappy” standing on the side of the street when I was at a stoplight. I detoured around and parked at a nearby McDonald’s and headed across a few streets then under a bridge to speak with him. I explained the project to him he accepted the $10 and said “Proverbs 28:27 He who gives to the poor will never want, but he who shuts his eyes will have many curses”. The next words he spoke almost left me speechless. Pappy said, “would you like to know what I think about those on unemployment, I think they have got too used to the check coming to them without having to do anything that they just don’t want to work. There is work out there, I’ve mowed lawns, painted houses”.

Pappy decided it was time for him to head to McDonald’s to warm up. I walked back across the way with him and sat in a nearby McDonald’s and we sat and talked for an hour until he said he needed to go.

The conversation with Pappy was very broad. He is 61 and a Vietnam War Veteran and showed the scars on his legs from where he was hit with shrapnel. He has been married twice and has children. Currently he was renting a room nearby but has been on and off the streets for 12 years. He spoke of coming home from Vietnam and working as a Publisher at the local Veteran’s Hospital and then having to return to the Veteran’s Hospital for nearly 2 years of rehabilitation therapy after being in a car accident and didn’t know if he was going to ever walk again.

He’s attempted suicide twice, and showed me the scar across his neck from his most recent attempt in 2001. Pappy attends church 7 days a week and spoke of the 3 different churches he attends service at. He shared how he has been on many prescription drugs due to illnesses, one of those being Hepatitis however he decided to heal himself through God and garlic herbs rather than healing himself through pharmaceutical companies.

He spoke of getting caught panhandling without a permit which has a fine of $154, he went to court and his punishment was making him wait 1 year to get a panhandling permit so he is still on the streets with no permit. He says he has figured out the best place to stand where he can see in all directions and if he sees the police he folds his sign up and walks away, so far this tactic has worked for him.

Pappy said he was going to use the ten dollars for food.

Unfortunately the picture I took of Pappy wasn’t clear. I’ve tried going back to his spot but was unsuccessful in finding him.

-Melinda T. from Xenia, OH

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Melinda met Nick while he panhandled at an exit ramp. (photo: Melinda T.)

Today I met a man named Nick.  Nick was standing near the exit ramp.  I felt drawn to give the $10 to him so I parked nearby and walked across the way.

Nick has been on and off the streets for a year now.  Nick was extremely skeptical to speak with me at first because he thought I was with the police and quickly pulled out his panhandlers permit to show it to me.  Perhaps I was just as skeptical as this was the first time I had ever approached a person standing on the streets panhandling.  I assured him I wasn’t with the police and he accepted that and then shared his life with me.

At the beginning of the video you see a quick shot of an ID.  This is Nicks ID showing that he is homeless, I never knew there was such an ID available.  He shared with me the views of inside the homeless shelter where he has spent a few nights and said the conditions there are awful and not a place for anyone to be but it keeps him out of the elements.  He invited me to take a visit with him to the homeless shelter however I declined that offer.

Nick said today was his first day out on the streets and he was there trying to collect money so he could purchase Christmas gifts for his children.  He was addicted to pain pills at one point and his life had went downhill since then.  He’s currently not addicted to anything and is trying to get his life back on track by getting a job so he can pay for a place to live and not have to sleep at the homeless shelter or jump from home to home sleeping on people’s couches.

I would have liked to speak with Nick a bit longer but the temperatures today were extremely cold and the wind we were encountering didn’t help.

-Melinda T. from Xenia, OH

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There was a lot of talk earlier this week of a white Christmas here in Pennsylvania, but so far no snow.  I had a wonderful holiday with my father, brother and sister-in-law.  I got some great presents and had fun making cookies and playing bridge.  I am stuffed though.  No more food for me until Spring.

It's hard to see here but this is a photograph that I took of James sleeping. He leans slightly against the wall and his upper body slowly bends toward the earth.

Today’s recipient is going to touch your heart.  He’s 58-year-old James who has been homeless in DC for “six or seven years.”  I found him at the Chinatown Metro stop late at night while he slept standing up.  I observed him for about five minutes and then he began to fall over and woke up again.  I walked over to see if he was ok.

“Oh I’m fine, thank you,” James said forcing the words through the frozen air.  “I sleep standing up ‘cause I get cramps lying down.”  He later added, “The last time I slept in a bed was 1995.”  I can’t imagine that.  I was still in college at that time.

Through speaking with James it appears that he has some chronic health problems, but he refuses to go to the hospital.  “I don’t trust them,” he says softly.  

Everything that James owns sat in front of him in a cold metallic shopping cart which he keeps chained to him to ensure that nobody steals it while he sleeps.  “I have my clothes, soap, cleaning stuff, shoes, underwear, socks, a step-ladder,” he says continuing on to name some other items.  I notice that tucked on top of the cart was a Webster’s Dictionary that was probably 25 years old.  “Oh, that’s my dictionary,” he said rallying a bit of energy, “I like to read the dictionary.” 

James says that he doesn’t have any living relatives that he knows of.  His mother died in 1968 and his grandmother looked after him until she later passed away.  

James eyes rarely opened wider than this.

He seemed interested in US presidents.  He enthusiastically spoke about President Obama.  He seemed fond of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter too.  “Clinton was alright, he came out to a trailer park one time to meet the folks,” he started to say, “and Jimmy Carter was a good man too, he had nigger lips, did ya ever notice that?”  His comment paralyzed me slightly and I couldn’t even really come up with a response.  I’ve never liked that word and don’t use it myself.  It so often comes loaded with so much hate when it is uttered, but James said it with endearing admiration for the 86-year-old former president.

James tries to stay warm next to his belongings.

“I’m probably gonna get me a burger and a $0.65 senior coffee at McDonald’s,” he said motioning toward the ten dollars that was folded between his fingers.  Sometimes he hangs out there to stay warm, watch some television and treat himself to the occasional ice cream.

The air was so cold my face was hurting.  I said goodbye and shook his bare hand.  It was cold and stiff and I asked if he had gloves.  If he didn’t, I was going to leave mine with him.  “I’ve got some, they’re in my pocket, I’m just not wearing them right now.”  The temperature was plummeting and I urged him to go to a shelter, but he insisted that he would be fine.  I hope that he was right.  Street Sense’s Ellen Gilmer reported last week that 37 homeless individuals died this last year in the DC area.  Sadly many of them probably died alone.

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Jim has been homeless for more than three years.

So many of the 365 people that I have met have touched my soul.  They have made me think about things that I would have never had the perspective to ponder prior to taking this walk.  Jim, a 52-year-old homeless resident of Washington, DC, invited me into his world for a while.  Will you join me?

It was an abnormally warm November 30th.  Puddles filled the streets and sidewalks as water droplets still fell from rain covered tree branches from the late afternoon showers.  Tucked under a small awning in front of what used to be the Riggs Bank in DC – now PNC – was Jim.  His head didn’t move much at first when I called out to him, rather his eyes abandoned the crossword on his lap and found their way to mine.  He sat up a little bit, plucked the earphones away from his ears and offered me a dry piece of real estate next to him.

Mostly homeless since 2007 he credits not being able to find work as the cause of his current lack of regular indoor housing.  The biggest challenge he faces being homeless is not the cold or the danger, but finding a place to store his personal items.  “I lost all of my belongings…twice!”  He once tried to hide his things in Rock Creek Park only to find them gone when he came back.  “There needs to be some type of lockers downtown where to store things in,” he says, “I’d be happy to pay a reasonable fee for such a service.”

It’s a different paradigm living on the streets.  You become more in tune with some things.  “The saddest people out here are the schizophrenics,” Jim says.  “They don’t access all the resources that are available for them and they can’t keep schedules.”  We touched on a variety of levels of mental illness and I jotted down one of the things he said that caught my attention: “There is a certain charm that mildly psychotic people have.”

He told me about an “ex street boyfriend” he had.  “He once stole some ugly sunglasses and some eye cream; only a gay homeless guy steals eye cream!” he said appreciating the humor.

The air occasionally brought a chill with it and Jim slipped a blue knit hat over his head.  With the Express newspaper still in his lap he says, “If a crossword is too hard it gets to be like work and if it’s work, I expect to get paid!”  We laughed together.  Speaking of work, Jim did recently get a job at a Cosi for about a week.  “It was just not for me,” he said shaking his head slowly and watching some young people walk by probably on their way to a nearby coffee shop or bar.  “I felt like I had hundreds of managers telling me what to do.”

We must have sat there for about 90 minutes.  I shot some video that I have included here of Jim talking about where he is from, about being homeless, suffering from depression and finally he took me on a short field trip over to the Marvelous Market to do some dumpster diving.  His compassion and charisma impacted me a great deal. Check it out.

Jim plans to use my $10 to get some coffee and maybe a snack in the morning at Books-A-Million.  “I’ve been wanting to read God of Small Things,” he says about Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize winning novel.  “It appears to be a rich fictional piece that I might just end up getting lost in.”

I asked someone walking by to take our photo.

Through my conversation with Jim I learned that he knows Bill C. and Tommy N. who I gave $10 to earlier in the year.  As a final note, I have stopped by and left some food for Jim when I have seen him sleeping at his spot.  He also joined me at the Year-End Celebration which meant a lot to me!  Do check out the Lend a Hand initiative to see a couple of very simple things that you could get to help Jim out.

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Still no major sponsor for the Year of Giving Anniversary event.  Have spoken to a few law firms, they have passed.  Had two corporate companies analyzing it too, one passed the other one now has completely gone silent.  Although I try not to be bitter, the sad reality is that these companies spend this on business travel without batting an eye.

Lorrie at 13th & H Streets in DC

On a positive note, today’s recipient will make you smile.  Her name is Lorrie and she is a Street Sense vendor who I met at 13th and H Streets in downtown Washington.  

Lorrie has been selling the Street Sense newspaper since May and says that she loves it.  Her wide smile and contagious laughter is still vivid in my memory.  “I try to make everyone’s day,” she told me.  Well she made mine!

Check out this short video of Lorrie and see her warm smile for yourself!

After meeting Lorrie, we have spoken a few times on the phone.  She explained that even with her paper sales she is falling short of the income that she needs.  If you would like to help Lorrie by making a donation, you can go to the online donation portal of Street Sense and make a donation.  In the comments section just put what percentage of your donation you would like to go directly to Lorrie H.

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I found Lisa wrapped in a sleeping bag nestled in an alcove in front of a Chinatown building near the intersection of 9th and E Streets.  I walked about 20 feet past her and decided to go back and give her my $10.

It was about 10:00pm and sun drenched streets had long been replaced by the black and blue shadows.  At first I wasn’t sure if she was a man or a woman, but as I got closer and my eyes adjusted I could see clearly that she was a woman.  The 50-year-old’s dirty blond hair was mostly covered by a wool hat.  Her eyes were like perfectly cut Brazilian aquamarines.  They were so stunning that it was hard to look elsewhere. 

She said that she has been homeless for 10 years.  I handed her my card.  She studied it for a while – rocking it back and forth between her uncovered fingers to catch the dim light that cast over her from the empty street.  She took the $10 and told me that she would get some breakfast in the morning.  “Maybe get me some pancakes,” she said still suspicious of the altruistic gift. 

I tried to make small talk and ask her about her experience on the streets.  “The toughest part is finding enough water,” she said as I pushed my hands deep into my pockets to keep them warm.  It was chilly, maybe 40 degrees yet she cited drinking water as the biggest challenge.   

Things got very awkward when I asked if I could take a photograph of her.  She got noticeably upset, “No.  I don’t want my picture taken.”  She extended her hand toward me offering the folded up ten dollar bill.  “You can have your money back.  I don’t want it.”  I explained that if she wasn’t comfortable being photographed that that was fine and the money was hers to keep.  We were both silent for a moment.  I looked away from her and saw a Styrofoam food container – the kind you get from a Chinese take-out restaurant – and a half full bottle of water.  Her hand and the ten dollars disappeared again under the many layers garments.

“Well, thanks for speaking with me,” I told her as I picked up my trusty backpack – I’ve been carrying that bag around for 342 days now!  “Good luck and stay safe…and warm!” I added as I went on my way.

Every time I leave a homeless person I have more questions than answers.  It always weighs heavy on my mind for the rest of the day.  As I pull the covers up over me at night and close my eyes I wonder if Lisa is withstanding the cold.  I wonder when the last time she slept in a bedroom with lots of pillows and a thick warm comforter.  I wonder what she dreams about?

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Of the 12,000 homeless in Washington, DC, Bill stands out.  Maybe it’s his charismatic demeanor the empathic tone of his voice.  Whatever it may be, I will remember my encounter with Bill.

Bill getting ready for bed on K Street.

I was walking north on 21st Street late at night.  I stopped and waited for the green walk sign to illuminate and crossed K Street.  It was void of all of the lobbyists and corporate types that fill the sidewalks during the day.  Despite the “Don’t Walk” sign I crossed the empty street.  As I approached the other side I saw a man on the northwest corner bundled in a sleeping bag in front of the glass doors of a bank.  The area was well-lit and I walked over to him.

Homeless on the streets of our nation’s capital for over five years, Bill ended up on the streets after the death of his father and subsequent loss of employment.  

Chills sprung up around my neck as he told me that he was born in Harrisburg Hospital in Pennsylvania.  Not only is it very close to where I grew up but it is the very same hospital where my mother died four years ago. 

We talked a little bit about the Central Pennsylvania area.  He went to York Catholic High School.  I went to Mechanicsburg High School.  And although we were separated by about 20 years I felt some kind of connection with Bill.

He lucidly spoke to me about being homeless.  “You have to be,” he began to say as he tugged at his dark hooded sweatshirt, “somewhat detached from reality to be homeless.”  He describes the mental state that one gets into as a sort of shock.  It paralyzes some individuals and they simply are unable to break out of the cycle.  “You could write a good book about being homeless though,” he perked up and said.  “You could call it Squirrels on Food Stamps.  I mean we sit in parks all day like the squirrels.”  

Despite the obvious dark side of being alone and homeless in America, Bill tells me of a side many people don’t know about.  “It’s dangerous out here for those of us who are homeless.  Sometimes you end up being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”  Bill was referring to an incident a few years earlier where at that very spot where he was sitting he was attacked by someone while he was sleeping.  He woke up to bone crushing blows to his skull.  “Thankfully I am just a few hundred yards from GW Hospital.  The doctor there told me I was 15 minutes away from dying.”  He is still noticeably bothered about the incident.  His voice silenced and we both just looked at each another.  “You can still see some of the blood stains over there,” he said pointing to a grape jam colored spot just feet away from where he was going to rest his head that night.

I found out we have something else in common other than being from Central Pennsylvania.  Bill used to live around the corner from my apartment in DC.  “That area has changed a lot since I lived there.”  He lived there from 1984-1995 and said that his rent started at $350 and ended at $450 per month.  Well, I can tell you that it has skyrocketed since those days.  “I lived across from Nora’s,” he said referring to a high-end restaurant noted for being the first certified organic restaurant in the United States.  Some of you might remember that I took my father there for dinner on his 70th birthday on Day 306.  

“In fact I used to steal fresh herbs from their garden,” Bill said chuckling a little.

He was going to use my $10 to buy himself breakfast the next morning.  “I usually go over to Miriam’s Kitchen, but I get so tired of that.  I’m going to go to the cafeteria at GW and get some sausage and biscuits.”

Before I left I told him about the Lend a Hand project.  “You know what I would love,” Bill started to say enthusiastically, “an electric blanket.”  Now you might wonder how a homeless guy is going to use an electric blanket, but Bill is pretty smart.  He sleeps right next to an electrical outlet.  So if you want to make a 55-year-old man’s day, send me an electric blanket and I will deliver it to Bill.

UPDATE: 11/28/2010

This is a first!  Less than 12 hours from when I posted this someone already sent me a brand new electric blanket for Bill.   Thank you Michelle!!!  When I receive it I will take it to him and try to post a picture or video, although he was not comfortable with me taking his picture when I met him….so we will have to see.  Thanks again!  You have been such a great supporter of the Year of Giving!

UPDATE: 12/5/2010

 

I delivered the electric blanket that Michelle from NC sent for Bill.  He was so thankful and it is really cold tonight so I am sure it will get good use.  Can you believe that he said he wanted to write a little note to the bank to ask permission to use their electricity?  Unbelievable.   He said that he could also use some size 8.5 shoes or boots with winter coming.

 



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Today’s post is from Election Day.  I thought it would be appropriate to give my ten dollars to someone who was exercising their civic duty by voting.

I walked over to my polling location and voted.  As an aside, what is wrong with our voting system?  They only have one electronic voting booth.  The rest is done by paper ballots.  I used to live in Brazil where they had fully electronic voting.  The electronic machines were introduced there in 1996 and fully implemented in 2000.  Ten years later, we have one machine in my voting district!  Parabens Brasil!

I approached several people who came out of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, my local polling location.  I first approached a white woman in her 50s with short dark hair who sat on a bench by herself.  She wasn’t very friendly toward me and asked me to give it to someone else.  Then I saw another woman leaving the voting center.  Amina refused as well, however, she said she liked the Year of Giving concept very much.  “I ran a soup kitchen in Johannesburg, South Africa for four years,” she shared.  “But for me to take your money and then give it to someone else just seems wrong.  I can use my own money to do that.”  We chatted for a little while longer before she went on her way.

Silvia and Salvador choose not to sleep in DC's shelters.

I then found a couple sleeping upright on a bench as they soaked in the sun’s warm rays to balance out the cool November air.   They were on the west side of the church.  I had seen them earlier, but didn’t want to wake them.  I noticed Salvador wasn’t able to sleep so I walked toward him.  As I got close to him, he nudged Silvia with his right elbow to wake up.

Silvia is 41 and is originally from El Salvador.  Salvador is 29 and is from Mexico.  She’s been here since 1984, him since 2002.  They are both homeless and sleep near a church at 16th and O Streets in DC.  “We even made it through the big snow storms last winter,” Silvia told me in Spanish.  “In fact, Salvador made us a really good shelter by the church with all the snow.”  

Salvador works at a restaurant somewhere near Thomas Circle I believe.  She works downtown cleaning offices I believe.  “I’ve got to work,” Silvia said.  “I have to pay $130 every month in child support.”  She has three children between the ages of 16-18.  She told me that she became homeless after a “situation of domestic violence.”

Salvador was rather quiet.  Maybe he was skeptical of my kindness.  He did say that he became homeless three years ago.  

Both of them said they would buy food with their portion of the ten dollars.  “I’m going to get me something from Chipotle,” Silvia said with an electric smile.  

They used the $10 for food.

It was five o’clock.  Salvador headed over to the church to start preparing their shelter for the evening and I walked with Silvia to the Dupont Metro where she needed to catch the train to get to work.  I gave her a hug and wished her luck.

This couple needs some basic items for the winter…please check out the Lend a Hand section if you are able to help them out.

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After 21 years with US Steel, drugs and alcohol have left Michael homeless. (photo: Reed)

In the early hours of October 5th I had just given my money to Alexander and Phaze.  I was talking to Alexander and getting my things together to leave because it was about 1:00am and I had to be at work in a few hours. Right then a guy pulled up on a Trek bicycle.  My initial thought was that the bike might have been stolen since it was missing the seat.  In a soft voice he approached me and said, “You want the real story?” He claimed that Alexander’s story was not representative of those facing real hardships on the streets.  “I don’t choose to be out here,” he said.  Although he was critical of Alexander’s choice to sell

StreetWise magazines, I support it.  I have seen how Street Sense here in DC has changed the lives of many individuals here in DC.  Michael was telling me that he was deserving of the $10 because of the hardships of his life.

So to give you an idea how this went down, I was filming Alexander and just let the camera running when Michael rolled up and started talking to me. Here is the raw unedited (with the exception of one part where we were interrupted) video from that conversation.

Michael said he goes daily to the labor lines in search of day work. “I get work probably once a week,” he told me.

Michael showed me the scars from where he was shot in Seattle. (photo: Reed)

He also told me that he survived a shooting in Seattle. Michael explained that it resulted from an incident where some other man pulled up the skirt of the woman he was with. He stood up for her and ended up getting shot six times. Michael pulled up his shirt to show me the wounds.

Michael's seatless bicycle (photo: Reed)

Before leaving Michael offered to give me the money back. I don’t really know why and I told him to keep it and he did. He said he was going to use it to buy food that week.
Right as I was packing up my stuff, another guy named Tim came by and also asked for money.  What is going on here?  Did someone tweet that a crazy guy was handing out money at Michigan and Randolph? Anyway, I politely told Tim no and headed home.

On my way home a filmed the following video debrief.

Tomorrow, it’s back to DC.

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So you may have noticed that I have been slow posting blogs lately.  Well, I have been swamped.  But now something has complicated my blogging even more!  I have a FLIP Mino HD camera that I use to shoot my video.  It’s pretty awesome for the price range (about $200).  HOWEVER, there is one thing that drives me crazy and has now twice brought my blogging to a crawl.  Their current software versions only output the files in MP4 format.  Previous versions of the software made an automatic conversion to Windows Media Video (WMV).  The issue here is that the movie editor that comes with Windows and YouTube both don’t work with MP4 files, but do work with WMV.  So now I can not edit or upload my videos. 

I have spoken to their support team and they even rolled my software version back, but it has now automatically updated itself again.  Aghhh!!!  This cost me several hours last time it happened and will require several hours again.  Maybe I should get a new camera…any suggestions? 

So the bottom line is that I am skipping Days 295 and 296 for now.  Sorry…have had to jump to 297 since this entry has no video.

On Day 297 I tried to give my $10 to an older gentleman in front of the Verizon Center.  He refused and I walked a few blocks away to the corner of 9th and G Streets where I found Boyo.  That’s actually not his real name but he was not comfortable with me using that.  In fact he didn’t really want to share any details about himself.  He didn’t want pictures taken either. 

Boyo was selling the Street Sense newspaper in front of the Gallery Place Metro entrance.  Born in London, he moved to his parent’s birth country of Nigeria at the age of five.  At some point I guess he moved here, but he wouldn’t go into details about that.  Boyo, who I managed to learn was 45, talked about putting his life story together in the form of a book and said that once he did that we could read it and learn all that we wanted to about him.  But until then, he preferred to stay anonymous and advised me to speak with him through his “editor” which coincidentally is a person that I know.  Small world.

Anyway, I did get Boyo to tell me what he would use the money for.  He said he would get something to eat.

I gave him an extra dollar and bought one of his newspapers and caught the 42 bus home.

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Nora's holds the distinction of being the first certified organic restaurant in the US.

Sorry for the delay in posting this week.  I appreciate all of your emails checking to see if I was ok!  I have been swamped at work, so I got behind.

Day 306 was was my father’s 70th birthday.  We took him to a restaurant near my house called Nora’s which has the distinction of being the first certified organic restaurant in the United States.

After our delicious dinner my father went with me to search the neighborhood for a $10 recipient.  Just a few blocks away along Connecticut Avenue we spotted a man inching his way down the street.  We would later find out that his slow gait was due to broken ankles and broken knees.

I stopped him and asked if he would accept the $10.  From beneath his black hooded rain poncho he spoke softly saying that he would accept my gift.  I proceeded to ask him a few questions but he said he was not comfortable answering any personal questions and did not want any photographs taken of him.  He offered to give them money back and I explained that the money was his to keep.

He was an African-American man who I suspected was in his 60s.  despite his slow walk he appeared in good health.  He had a stark white beard that seemed to block the words from getting out.  “I also have a dislocated organ,” he told us pointing to the left side of his abdomen.  Neither of us asked him to explain further.

He clenched the $10 in his worn hands.  I could see the dirt that had settled underneath his long fingernails. 

My dad and me at Nora's celebrating his 70th birthday! (photo: Ryan Sandridge)

“You can call me John I guess,” he told me in a way that I knew that wasn’t his real name.  John said I looked familiar and I thought for a moment that I might have already given my $10 to him earlier in the year, but after I spoke with him for a few minutes I was sure that I had not met him before. 

I told him that it was Dad’s 70th birthday.  “He’s got good skin,” he said in response.  He also said something about my father’s eyes.  I think he said that they were still well aligned, but Dad thinks he said that they were “alive.”  In either case, he made some nice comments about my dad. 

John says that he tries to write every day.  “Well, when it’s warm I come right here and write on these benches but when it gets cold I find a place indoors.”  I asked what he liked to write about and he explained that he had a book about verbs and he practiced making sentences where he put the verbs together with various statements.

He was carrying two plastic bags that contained some personal items.  He showed us bottles of multi-vitamins and Ensure.  “I take 3 multi-vitamins a day; I usually try to take them six hours apart however yesterday I took all three at the same time.”  He went on to say that every other day he drank a small bottle of Ensure.  “When I have a little extra money I usually spend it on vitamins or maybe a book.”

Since the conversation had circled back to money I decided to ask him what he planned on using the $10 for.  “To survive,” he said.  “I’m just going to use it to survive.”

The 42 bus rolled up and he said he was getting on.  He gave us both a fist bump and started inching his way toward the bus.  It took him a few minutes, but sure enough he got on and the bus pulled away disappearing into the traffic at Dupont Circle.

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This Sunday is the 10th of October.  Inspired by the Year of Giving, a guy named Howard Wu created an event, Give a Stranger 10 Bucks Day.  Howard thought that the perfect day to do this would be October 10th since it is 10/10/10.  Why not join me and Howard and give $10 away this Sunday.  Click here to go to Howard’s event page.  Like the Worldwide Day of Giving, I encourage you to leave comments here or on the Facebook page about your experience.  Good luck!

Ernest has been out of work for nearly five years. (photo: Reed)

On Day 280 I saw Ernest holding a sign on the side of a very busy intersection in Virginia.  Born in Alexandria, VA, this 51-year-old used to work for the Alexandria School Board, but he has been unemployed for the past five years.  He now lives in motels.

“I started panhandling about a month and a half ago,” Ernest tells me.  “I was working on and off for a moving truck company.”  Now he stands on the corner of Lee Highway and Fairfax Road holding a sign that says, “I am homeless.  Does it hurt to give to someone in need.  Please help me if you can?  God bless.”

He says that on a good day he brings in about $90.

Now divorced, Ernest has a 30 year-old-son, two grandkids and three stepchildren.  “I try not to be a burden to any of my kids.”  He says that some people he knows don’t know that he is homeless, but admits that “the truth will set you free.”

“I’m not learning too much out here,” he confesses as a pick-up truck whizzes by him pushing him up against the guard rail.  “You get all kinds of people out here.”  A lot of people show him compassion and offer him some help, but others taunt him.  “You know some guys say stuff like, ‘Hey man you look healthy…get a job!’  I’m like, at least give me a smile or a wave or something.”

He says that it is really hard for him right now.  “I would much rather have a job.”  He would like to find work as a handyman, custodian or maintenance man.   

Although he says he is not learning much, I did find one thing he has learned.  He figured out where the best corner to stand was.  “I used to stand across the street and a few other places, but this has the most traffic,” he explains.  I was shocked that he chose the spot he did because there was only about 18 inches between him and the passing cars.  I jumped over on the other side of the guard rail while I spoke with him because I didn’t feel safe standing where he was.  

Ernest put the $10 I gave him toward the cost of his room that night.

Ernest used the $10 to pay for a motel room that night. (photo: Reed)

Before leaving, we swapped telephone numbers in case someone reading this would like to contact Ernest about a job.  I learned that in Arlington County if you fall below a certain economic indicator the county supplies you with a cell phone and a basic minutes plan.  This gives homeless individuals like Ernest a way for family, friends and potential employers to locate them.  Awesome!

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Volunteers enabled SOME to prepare almost 400,000 thousand meals last year. (Photo: Thom Wolf)

Volunteering is an integral part of society.  It helps ensure that essential public services are provided, builds social capital and fosters cohesive communities all while benefiting the volunteer as well by giving them opportunities to acquire new skills, have sense of purpose and integrate them into their community.  I encourage everyone to find some volunteer activity to do at least once a month.  It doesn’t need to be formal either.  It could be as simple as raking your elderly neighbors leaves, helping someone learn to read, or offering to provide a professional service or trade that you are skilled in at no cost.  Former President Clinton said in his book Giving, “Almost everyone – regardless of income, available time, age, and skills – can do something useful for others and, in the process, strengthen the fabric of our shared humanity.” How true he was.

On Day 277 I was volunteering at So Others Might Eat (SOME), an organization that has impressed me tremendously.  For 40 years they have been feeding and clothing DC’s homeless and poor, treating the ill in their medical, dental and mental health programs, training individuals for jobs and housing those in need. 

It was a Friday morning and I was volunteering in their dining room.  They serve breakfast and lunch to a couple hundred people in a short span of time so things need to be done quickly and efficiently. 

Michelle will celebrate eight years of sobriety on October 16th! (photo: Reed)

This is where today’s recipient comes in.  In addition to being the Assistant Volunteer Coordinator, Michelle also is the Dining Room Manager.  In other words, while I am working in the dining room, she is my boss.  And let me tell you, she makes the place run.  She knows when not to take crap from someone but also knows when someone just needs a hug.  I even saw her take a minute to dance a little to the music that was playing and she’s got some moves!

Born in DC General Hospital, Michelle grew up in PG County.  She went to Largo High School and went on to study cosmetology.  But then things changed.  “I got into drugs and alcohol and let them override my education,” she explained.  “I was in and out of treatment, in and out of jail.  It was not a good situation.”  She became sober on October 16th, 2002 – same sobriety anniversary as Bob!  She worked a few jobs but really wanted to work at SOME.  “I applied and then was calling, calling, calling you know and I finally got the job!”

Michelle has three grown children and a grandchild.  She now lives on Capitol Hill, owns a vehicle and has a steady job that she enjoys.  “I am grateful for so many things.”

Michelle (right) with co-worker Brittany. (photo: Reed)

Michelle, who turns 48 in less than two weeks, says that it’s the little things that make her day.  “You know, sometimes people will come up to me and say ‘thank you, you helped me so much’ and that means a lot to me.”   She gets to know some of their guests very well.  “I’ve been to funeral services for some of them…in fact I’m going to one today.” 

She’s a people person.  “I think I’m funny,” she says with a smile.  She is and has a great smile, but she can be tough too.  “We don’t tolerate disrespect or disruptive behavior here.”  Just then a guest walks by and asks her a question.  She greeted them by saying, “Hello friend, what can I do for you?”  She calls everyone “friend.”  Michelle is one of those people that define the organization’s culture.  Weak organizations, especially service related organizations, lack people like Michelle.

SOME is located at 71 O Street in NW Washington DC. (photo: Reed)

The ten dollars I gave her would be spent on something small for herself.  “I’m going to be good to myself!”  She said she might get a sub from Subway.

If you are in the DC area and need a good place to volunteer, check out SOME.  Why not get a bunch of your friends or coworkers together and set up a day for you all to go and volunteer together.  More details on how you can help can be found here.

So Others Might Eat (SOME)
71 ‘O’ Street, NW
Washington, DC 20001
Phone: 202.797.8806
www.some.org

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Ismail sleeping in the foreground as a cyclist pedals by on Rock Creek Parkway. (photo: Reed)

I made my way back from Pennsylvania to DC on Tuesday.  It was such a beautiful drive home that I thought I should get outside and go for a bike ride.  I got my Moleskine notebook, my camera, $10 and my audio recorder together and packed my Swiss Army backpack and headed out on my bike toward the Potomac River.  

It was a perfect day.  The sun was shining and people were out running and biking.  As I got close to the river I saw lots of people practicing crew and

Ismail still trying to wake up. (photo: Reed)

others just leisurely enjoying the calm waters.  About 100 yards from the manicured grounds of the Kennedy Center I found a man taking a nap on a shaded patch of grass on the northern bank of the Potomac. 

I cautiously approached him, trying to make a little bit of noise so that I didn’t startle him, and called out, “Excuse me.  I’m sorry to bother you, but do you have a minute.”  Ismail slowly roused from a groggy state.  He rubbed his eyes and wet his lips as he studied me and we slipped into an hour-long conversation about his life, politics, religion, economy and one Don Vito Corleone.

“I came here from Sudan 26 years ago to meet Marlon Brando,” Ismail says fighting off a cough.  He shares that he has seen all of Brando’s movies.  He is especially fond of Sayanora (1957) and the classic The Godfather (1972).  To Ismail, Brando was not just an actor, but much more.  “His movies had meaning and Brando himself stood for things.  His movies didn’t have any garbage.”  Still fighting off the sleep, he admits that he unfortunately never got to meet his idol.

I dug around in my backpack for my Moleskine notebook where I take notes about the people I meet.  It also has a handy folder where I keep my ten dollars and cards that I give people.  I realized I had left the book on my kitchen counter.  Shoot.  I checked my wallet, all I had was two twenties and four singles.  Hmmm. What to do?  Well, I will just offer him $20.

A crew team glides by behind Ismail. (photo: Reed)

“Oh!  I’ve read about you.  I remember you.  There was a story about you in the Washington Post several months ago,” he says taking off his black modern looking glasses.  “But you normally give $10, right, let me give you $10 change,” he offered.  I told him to keep the extra ten; it would make for an interesting deviation in my giving.

“Did you think that I would ever find you,” I asked.  

“If I tell you, you’re not going to believe me, but I was thinking about you two days ago,” he says.  He had read an article somewhere about a guy who gave some money to a homeless guy in Rosslyn and he thought that perhaps it was me.  I don’t think it was, but you never know.  I have given to some people in Rosslyn which is just across the Potomac river.

Ismail originally came to the US from Sudan, the largest country in Africa and the Arab world.  It’s a unique country in that it has nine neighbors with a variety of different cultures, religions and languages.

His move to the US was related to his work with the League of Arab States.  18 years ago, he left the organization and began driving a cab in DC.  He recently was forced to stop driving his cab after racking up thousands of dollars of unpaid fines.  He got his license revoked and had to give up his taxi cab.  That was six months ago.  “I sent my wife and son home to Sudan and moved out of our apartment to save money,” the father of three said.  He tried the shelters but said that the conditions are so poor in most shelters that he prefers to sleep on the streets of DC.  “I am saving money to pay the fines, so I don’t need to have extra things to pay such as rent right now.”  He talks of a nice facility on Wisconsin Avenue where they allow eight individuals per day to shower there.  “I go there and sometimes even receive mail there.” 

Ismail has been homeless for six months. (photo: Reed)

He said he owed almost $5,600 in fines.  I never fully understood how he accumulated these fines or what they were for.  “I offered to pay them $150 per day every day at eight o’clock, but they said I had to pay everything at once, which I can not do.”  He says he has saved up a couple thousand dollars through working as a dish washing but still needs approximately $2,075.  Although he didn’t ask, I said maybe some of the readers of the Year of Giving would be able to help him.  He at first declined this offer saying that he was healthy and could work so he didn’t need to receive any assistance from others, but then said, “Well, I would accept the help with one condition.  If they would send me their name and address as well so that I can pay them back once I get my cab back.”  I believe he was sincere with this promise.

“I’m going to put your twenty dollars toward the money I owe,” he told me.  

Ismail laughs easily. (photo: Reed)

We chatted about the challenges of being homeless.  Ismail paused as a plane on final approach to Reagan National Airport passed overhead before saying, “Even if someone is homeless or crazy, he still has dignity.  He still needs to be listened to.”  He said that if you take a person’s dignity away they don’t have anything left.  I agree.  It reminds me of Anthony from Day 6, a homeless man who I met sitting in the snow near Dupont Circle Metro who was sending Christmas cards to his family members.  “I still have my pride,” Anthony told me last December.  

I enjoyed my time with Ismail and I know I will see him again.  If anyone wants to help him, let me know, I have his cell phone number.

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Today’s blog marks the countdown of the final 100 days of my Year of Giving.  Hard to believe that I have given away $2,650, met 265 incredible people and written 265 blog posts about the amazing journey that I embarked on December 15th of last year.   I wanted to take a moment and just thank every one that has been a part of my year.  From the recipients to the readers to my family and friends to the journalists to those who have sent items for the Lend a Hand project, you all have helped shape the journey.  Thank you.

The Kipona Festival in Harrisburg dates back to 1916. (photo: Reed)

Day 265 takes place on Sunday September 5th in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  My father and I drove over to the Kipona Festival along the sparkling shores of the Susquehanna River.  The festival features a variety of food, children’s theatres, educational activities, arts and crafts, boat races, concerts and fireworks.

Some come to Kipona just for the food. (photo: Reed)

We strolled by hundreds of tents full of arts and crafts, food vendors and families enjoying the festivities.  There were several people who I thought about giving my $10 to.  There was Scott Matyjaszek, a 3-dimensional photographic artist who hand cuts all the photographs and then layers them to create what he calls “photo-reliefs.”  His work was really impressive.  You can check it out at www.artephax.com, however, I doubt you can fully appreciate his work since it is in fact the 3-D element that makes it so unique.  There was also a young guy from Tennessee grilling some chicken that he marinated in oil, lemons and other spices.  And I also thought about giving the money to Patty Hankin from Bethesda, MD who was there displaying some of her beautiful photographs of flowers.

James with the Walnut St. Bridge in the background. (photo: Reed)

But sometimes I feel like I don’t really choose.  The recipients choose me.  This is what happened when 42-year-old James asked me for money as I was shooting some photographs of the Walnut Street Bridge that connects City Island to Harrisburg.

James said he has been homeless for the past three and a half months and sleeps along the bank of the Susquehanna River.  A graduate from Shippensburg University, he told me that he had fallen on tough times after being arrested for various charges including theft and DUI.  On top of that, his girlfriend died unexpectedly.  All of this caused him to lose his job as a funding/benefits coordinator.

“People sometimes don’t believe that a white college educated guy like me could be homeless, but I am,” James told me.  He says that he lives off of panhandling and $150 a month that his brother, a television news producer in Washington, DC, sends him.

James said that he slept on the river bank near where this photo was taken. (photo: Reed)

James seemed nervous and said that needed to go.  “I’m not going to lie to you, I am going to get me a sandwich at Sandwich Man and probably buy a cheap pack of menthol cigarettes.”  He hurried off.

Just then my father, who had walked a few yards away to get out of the sun, introduced me to a gentleman sitting on a stone wall a few steps from where I met James.  He gave me his business card and introduced himself as the chief of police from a neighboring community.  He saw James approaching several individuals.  “I tried to get your attention when he came up to you.  I didn’t want you to get scammed.”  The off duty chief said that he positioned himself right next to me in case anything happened.  That was really nice of him to keep an eye out for me.

People often ask me if I believe everything that people tell me.  Of course not, but I try to give people the benefit of the doubt.  Although I have faith in humanity, there was something about James and his story that didn’t sit well with me.  He seemed so anxious to get going once he got the $10.  Perhaps he was really hungry.  Or maybe he has some addiction issues and went off to get his fix.  Or maybe he just noticed the police chief paying attention to him and felt uneasy.  Who knows?  It really doesn’t matter for the most part.  I am practicing unconditional giving, so the recipients can do anything they want with the money.  I would like to hope that people are usually honest with me though.

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Just after midnight on Sunday morning I was on my way home when I was approached by two men as I walked through Dupont Circle.  Tyrone approached me and said that his friend wanted to talk to me.  His friend, Josh, approached me and they invited me to join them in threesome!  Oh my God.

I got a bit nervous and kept walking to a more lit area.  The two men followed me there and I tried to change the subject and told them about my project and offered them the $10.  They weren’t interested in the ten spot. I said goodbye and headed home.  Never a dull moment living in Dupont.

Dupont Farmer's Market (photo by Reed)

The next morning I got up early and headed over to the Dupont Farmers Market.  I weaved in and out of the various vendor stalls and looked for someone that caught my eye.  I didn’t find the right person though.  And it was really hot and I was getting impatient.

I left the market and just as I crossed the street I saw David selling the Street Sense newspaper on the corner of Q Street and Connecticut Avenue.

David started working for Street Sense on June 13th (photo by Reed)

Originally from Western Kenya near Lake Victoria, David came to the United States in 1997.  He was working in banking at the time and thought that Delaware would be a good place to live to learn about corporations since most companies are incorporated in the “First State.”  He later moved to DC in 2000.

At first he stayed with a professor friend here in DC while he studied at Strayer University.  He hoped to eventually become a doctor.  “I like medicine a lot.  I even used to volunteer at George Washington Hospital,” David said with a pronounced British accent.  He went on to talk about genetics.  “They are the key to living longer, eliminating disease and improving intelligence.”  In five years he hopes to be a medical researcher.

Like many Street Sense vendors, David is homeless.  However, unlike many of the other homeless that I have met, he chooses to sleep in shelters.  He currently stays at the Mitch Snyder shelter at 2nd and D Streets.  Mitch Snyder was a homeless advocate who was the subject of a 1986 made-for-television movie starring Martin Sheen.  After nine years of homelessness David says that shelters in DC are improving.  “There’s been a lot of changes that started in 2004, like installation of air conditioning, spraying for bugs and improved services.”

It’s been 13 years since he left Kenya.  He said that he misses the food.  “A typical meal back home is broiled or roasted corn.  We put lemon pepper on the corn and eat it with coffee or tea.”

One of six children and the only son, David has lost touch with most of his family.  “The last time I saw my dad was 1985, my mom raised us.”  He said he would like to know what happened to his father: Tom Nyamongo.  “I know that he went to Harvard in the 1980s, but he had some type of government job and his life was quite secretive.”  He hasn’t spoken to his mother in several years.  Although he hasn’t been able to confirm this, a sister of his told him in 2001 that she had passed away.

David has been homeless since 2001. (photo by Reed)

In addition to learning more about his parents, David would like to find a cousin of his that was like a big brother to him.  His name is Ben Bella Jaoko and he is in his mid forties today according to David.  “He moved to Poland in the 1980s to study.  With the internet today maybe somebody can find him,” he said with hope in his voice.

Before saying goodbye, David told me that he was going to use the $10 to buy him a nice meal consisting of some Italian sausages and some bread, a beer and put the rest toward a pack of cigarettes.

Although I met David at Connecticut and Q, he says that he is usually at 17th and K if you would like to stop by and say hello.

UPDATE 10/04/2011: Since my initial encounter with David, the most incredible thing has happened. Someone who was going to a job interview at a company in Poland Googled the hiring manager for the job to learn a little more about him – something we all do today, right? The hiring manager’s name was Ben Bella Jaoko!

Well, would you believe he found my post about his cousin David and at the end of the interview asked Ben if he knew that he had a cousin in the U.S. who was looking for him. Completely shocked, Ben wasted no time contacting me and we connected by phone and I put him and David in contact.

From that moment on Ben worked tirelessly to make arrangements for David to get back to Kenya to be reunited with his family.

This morning as I sat working away at my kitchen table, I got a phone call from Ben. I didn’t immediately recognize the voice but when I heard David’s name mentioned I connected the dots. “I’ve managed to raise enough money to purchase the airfare for David to come back to Kenya,” he told me. He explained to me the rest of the details and asked for my help to take him to the airport and help pay for luggage fees, etc. I am sure there will be some other incidentals that will come up too as he prepares to return to Nairobi. If you would like to help us reunite David with his family you can donate $10 by clicking HERE or the yellow DONATE button on the top right side of this page.

We hope to have everything completed for David to depart by the end of the month. With your help, we can make that happen!

I hung up the phone and sat for a moment in silence in my apartment. All because of a simple blog post that I made back a little over a year ago David has is about to leave the streets of Washington to be reunited with his family. This is what it is all about!

UPDATE 11/15/2011: David will be flying home to Kenya on Tuesday, November 22nd. He has been away for nearly 15 years. Thanks to so many of you who have offered to help support these efforts. I have organized a going away party for David on Monday evening at One Lounge (1606 20th Street, NW – Dupont) in DC from 5:30-8:00pm. Please stop by and meet David before he embarks on this exciting new stage of his life. We will also be accepting donations if you would like to contribute to covering some of the costs associated with getting David back home. I hope to see you next Monday!!

 

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Harvey, 42, suffers from mental illness and has been homeless for about a year. (photo: Reed)

On any given night some 671,000 people in the United States, of which 5,320 are located in DC, are homeless according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.  Harvey is one of them.

I saw him sitting on the ground next to the entrance to McDonald’s on M Street between 19th and 20th Streets in Northwest.  On his lap was a sign that read, “A man in need is a man without greed.  Please help.”  Next to him was a styrofoam container of food and a bag of personal items.

I met Harvey while he was eating lunch. (photo: Reed)

“I’ve been homeless here in DC for about a year now,” Harvey tells me as he eats some ribs that he purchased for his lunch.  Originally from Lancaster, PA, Harvey said he came down to DC with the hope of a job but his plans were shot after being robbed at Union Station upon arriving here.  “I lost everything I had – some $2,600 in cash.” 

He says that he feels lucky in the sense that people often help him.  “I usually get about $30 a day out here.”  Harvey says that gets support from people from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds and races with one exception: Asians.  “I don’t know why but Orientals never help me out.”  He goes on to tell me that people who appear to be lower glass give more often than those who appear to be middle and upper class.

As we talked two people stopped to help Harvey out.  One was a young attractive professional who dropped some coins in his cup as she walked by.  The other was a British woman who stopped and asked if she could get him some food.  A few minutes later Jane returned from the McDonald’s with a bag that contained a Big-Mac, fries and a chocolate milkshake.  She even gave him the change from whatever amount she had used to pay for the food.  I asked her why she helped and she said that she felt very fortunate and that the least she could do is help someone else out.  “He’s down on his luck and I am able to help him out, that’s it.”

Harvey says that he has noticed that people’s response varies on the sign that he uses.  “One time I had a sign that said, ‘Please spare help for a worthless piece of shit.’  I made $60 that day.”  Although he was happy for the money he made that day, he stopped using the sign.  “I’m not a worthless piece of shit though; it’s hard to sit here behind that sign when you know that isn’t the truth.”

photo: Reed

He says that being on the streets has taught him survival skills.  “You have to take care of yourself, especially in the winter.  You learn how to use things like cardboard to help you stay warm.”  He also told me that he often has to shower in public fountains.  “I just bought some soap today, I try to stay clean.”

Harvey, who says he has five sisters and three brothers, isn’t in regular contact with most of his family.  “They don’t care about others.”  He also doesn’t seem to have any friends in DC.  “I don’t associate with too many people.”

He goes on to say that some of his challenges are a result of his mental illness.  “Most homeless suffer from sort of mental problem or physical problem.  I’m bipolar.”  Harvey says that he has often thought about committing suicide.  He doesn’t take any medication to help with his mental illness either.

He told me that he was going to use the ten dollars to get him some food over the next couple days and also buy a couple of beers for the evening.  “I don’t do any drugs or hard liquor.  The hard stuff makes me suicidal,” Harvey confessed. 

I shook his hand and wished him luck.  He mentioned some items that he needs and I have added them to the Lend a Hand page.

If you would like to help the homeless in Washington, DC, I encourage you to support your local Street Sense vendor or make a donation through their website.

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If you are in Washington, DC, join me today at the Shakespeare Theatre Family Fun Fair from 10:00-2:00 downtown near the Verizon Center.  It should be a fun event for the whole family.

photo: Reed

I was recently dog-sitting in Manassas, VA for my friends Tressa and Tom.  It was nice to have a new community for a few days to share the Year of Giving with.  On my first day there I headed over to Costco to get some items that I needed.  As I was leaving I saw a man sitting with his child.  I asked him to be my 234th recipient but he preferred not to participate.  His name was Jeremy.

I then headed over to the Giant grocery store on Sudley Rd and picked up another couple items to have on hand for my weekend “getaway” in Manassas.  I was still looking for someone else but just didn’t seem to see the right person.  About a block away from the Giant there was a Family Dollar store.  I drove over there and saw a woman coming out of the store.

I parked quickly and ran over to Angela who was now loading her purchases into the car.  She was very friendly and open to talking with me.  We talked for about thirty minutes and I have thought about her and her story every day since.

Angela has overcome many challenges in life (photo: Reed)

Angela is a 35-year-old single mother of five kids!  The oldest is 17 and the youngest is seven.  Unfortunately she doesn’t have custody of the children right now because the father (they are separated) had nearby family that would be able to help raise the children.  Angela’s closest family members are in West Virginia.  She works two full-time jobs right now as a certified nursing assistant in order to be able to support herself and make payments to help with childcare of her children.  “I have been working as a CNA for 14 years now,” She says.  “I like what I do; it’s like taking care of family.”

As we talked more I discovered that just how difficult of a time it was for Angela when she and her husband separated.  It set off a series of events.  She got depressed and ended up losing her job and later her home.  “I slept in my car for a total of six months to get back to living in an apartment,” she told me.

Angela shared this very emotional moment with me in this video clip.  It’s heartbreaking to see and hear her describe such a difficult time in her life.

Angela has her own apartment now and wants to go back to school to get her nursing degree.  She also wants custody of her children.  “It’s really hard,” she admits.  I think it’s important that Angela pursue her nursing degree so that she can have a more stable financial situation, work fewer hours and have a more active role in the lives of her children.  The challenge with that is to be able to juggle nursing school while still working enough to make ends meet.  If you or anyone you know is a career counselor at a school that might be able to speak with Angela and give her some guidance on how to successfully manage all that, please contact me so that I can put you in touch with her.

As I said earlier I think about my conversation with Angela every day.  Meeting her and learning about her story really touched my heart.  It’s people like Angela that I meet that make going out and giving my $10 away every day worth it.

Angela in front of the car that she lived in for six months (photo: Reed)

She was tired and had worked all week.  Angela told me that she was going to run in to the Aldi supermarket and get some groceries with my $10.  I gave her a hug and walked back to my car and just sat there for a while thinking about how difficult it must have been to lose her husband, her children, her job, her house and live in her car.

Her determination and perseverance remind me of a quote by Harriet Beecher Stowe, “When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hold on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.” 

Angela’s tide is turning.

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Ishmael sits with his boots that someone gave him during the snow storm this winter. (photo: Reed)

People always say that homeless people are lazy and don’t want to work.  Meet Ishmael.  He’s 49 and was born and raised here in Washington, DC.  Now homeless, he wants more than anything an opportunity to be gainfully employed.

It is kind of a vicious circle though.  We all know that it’s easier to find a job when you already have a job.  Prospective employers often think that you have something to offer simply by the fact that another organization hired you.  I know that when I was working I would get recruiters calling me regularly about other jobs.  When I was out of work for 285 days, my phone didn’t ring near as often.  And if you are homeless, there is a good chance you don’t even have a phone so it’s that much more difficult.  You don’t have a computer or even a safe place to keep your clothes and belongings. 

I found Ishmael as he escaped the sun’s hot rays beneath a tree in the small triangular park that is surrounded by noisy streets of New Hampshire, 21st and M.  I sat down next to him and gave him the $10.  He was very grateful for the act of kindness and said he was going to use it to buy some food this week.  I think he knows that many people probably think that someone in his situation would use it for drugs or alcohol.  He looked me in the eye and assured me that he didn’t have any substance abuse problems.

“I got to this situation because I didn’t get myself together,” Ishmael explains.  “However, when you lose your job or your house for four or five years, you come back and work so much harder for an organization.”  Ishmael also said that he understands that he needs to be patient.  “My time will come.”  He recorded this short message that talks specifically about what kind of job he would like to find and the commitment he will make to that organization. 

Ishmael’s last job was cleaning mail bags at a large building.  Just by talking with him I could tell that he understood what was important in his work: quality, efficiency, attitude and following established procedures. 

He turns 50 this next February 12th and hopes to be in a different situation by then.  Can you help him?  Let me know.  I am going to reach out to Robert from Day 225 and his DC Central Kitchen to see if there might be something he could do there as he said he had experience in the food service industry. 

photo: Reed

By the way, if you don’t have job leads for him, you can also help him out with gift cards to Safeway.  You can send them to me and I will get them to Ishmael.

As we said he goodbye, he said, “You aren’t like most people.  You are progressive and open-minded.  All I need is someone like you who is willing to take a chance on me.”

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Yab with all of his belongings (photo: Reed)

Today is my brother’s 39th birthday! Happy birthday Ryan. He has helped me in so many ways with my Year of Giving; from suggesting that I start on the anniversary of my mother’s passing to countless hours of computer and camera support to reading every blog post and pointing out mispelled words that I missed. He has been there with me the entire journey. Thanks LB! I love you.

Often times when I speak to someone about the Year of Giving and the conversation turns to the homeless people who I have given to people assume that they use the money for alcohol or drugs.  Of course that has happened.  However, sometimes you would be surprised what a homeless person does when they are offered $10.  I was certainly surprised with Yab’s response.

On this particular day I was walking along 23rd Street near Rock Creek Park in northwest DC.  I saw Yab lying on some cardboard on the side of the road.  He was sleeping.  I took a chance and went over and spoke to him.  He took a second to wake up and I introduced myself.  I explained what I was doing and we started talking.

Yab hasn’t shaved since 1997 (photo: Reed)

Originally from Ethiopia, Yab told me an amazing story about his life.  He patiently invited me back to the year 1943 when he was seven years old living in Ethiopia.  It was July, the cold season, when one morning he volunteered to take some of his family’s cattle up the mountain to graze.  When he got to the top of the mountain, he came across a man standing outside a cave.  “There’s a hyena inside there” the man told young Yab.  He walked cautiously over to the entrance of the cave and peered inside.  Sure enough, there was a massive hyena lying inside.  The man suggested that they build a fire to drive the hyena out.  Yab started to gather sticks and small logs to build the fire and the man came close to Yab and touched his arm and out of nowhere the wood caught fire and the hyena fled the cave.  It wasn’t until 50 years later on President Clinton’s inauguration day on January 20th, 1993 that he realized who that man was.  “I didn’t know it then, but that was God there with me.”  Ever since this realization he has lived a deeply spiritual life.  He shares his message asking everyone to accept Jesus into their life in this short clip.

So how did Yab get to the US from that mountainside in Ethiopia?  Well, in the 1980s Yab was in Somalia working on some oil ventures when he was captured and taken hostage by terrorists who were against the country’s leader Siad Barre, who was later overthrown in 1991.  When the UN and the Red Cross got involved he asked for political asylum to the United States.  Since he had lived in the US briefly in 1958 he was given priority and offered asylum in Minnesota.  He said he didn’t really want to go to Minnesota but they promised him free housing, free education, food, a Pell Grant, etc.  However, when he arrived, he said that the assistance only lasted for about a month and then he was asked to leave the Mayflower Church where he was staying and told that he would have to go. 

He eventually got them to give him $1,600 and a ticket to Washington, DC where he even got to meet with then Mayor Marion Barry before Barry went to prison in 1991.

Later that year Yab became homeless and has been so ever since.

The former electrical engineer now carries signs around with him with messages on them that definitely make you look twice.  I asked him to explain some of the signs; most of which seemed too bizarre to be true.  One said:

Monster Obama must stop cuttin’ human throats at the expense of:

1. Dupont Circle chess players 

2. Oprah Winfrey – Arsenio Hall – Horton – Barry   

3. Odinga PM of Kenya.

One of Yab’s signs (photo: Reed)

Probably the most extreme thing he shared with me was that he believed that President Obama was with the CIA and tried to kill him when he was in the concentration camp in Somalia.  “I know it was him, I saw him.”  I tried to understand his thoughts and messages but it was difficult to follow his logic.  It reminded me a little bit of John from Day 121.  Both men are extremely nice.  Both have turned to signs to spread their message.  And I think both are greatly misunderstood because their choice of messages.

photo: Reed

I finally asked the bearded 74-year-old what he planned to do with the $10.  Would you believe that he gave it back to me and said that he wanted me to have it.  He said that he hasn’t accepted money from anyone since he became homeless in 1991.  “God will take care of me,” he assured me.  I tried to convince him to keep it or give it to someone else, but he said he wanted me to have it.  Faith and dignity are strong stubborn things. 

I’ve walked by that place several times since I met Yab but haven’t seen him again.

Update 12/Oct/2010

I ran into Yab on the streets of DC today.  He was doing well, seemed in good health and good spirits.  He recognized me and remembered our conversation well.  Pushing a cart full of personal items, he was walking south on Columbia Rd. toward Dupont.

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Tommy and Loni pose for me at Dupont Circle (photo: Reed)

I was walking through Dupont Circle at dusk when I passed a man and woman sitting on a bench.  As I got passed the couple I heard them both make some sexually suggestive comments to me.  Flattering ones, but still it’s awkward to hear.  I kept walking for about 30 yards and stopped and thought, this could be interesting.  So, I turned around and decided to walk back and give my $10 to them.  “He’s coming back” Tommy said a bit nervously perhaps as I headed back toward the bench where they were seated.

I spent the next hour talking to Tommy and Loni.  I soon learned that Loni was a transgender.  She told me that she had the full surgery and was completely operational.  “Wanna take a look” she said with a demonic smile.  Hmmm, I think I’ll pass.  

They went back and forth a little deciding who was going to accept $10 until they finally agreed that Tommy would.  “You have no idea how many times I have really needed $10″ he says.

Although now he has a place to stay, Tommy used to live right here in Dupont Circle.  “I love the park, but the problem with this place is that there are too many people sharing my room” he says as he gives way to a hearty laugh.  I laughed as well.  He shared that one time he was sleeping on the edge of the fountain at the circle when he rolled off into the water. (Hey, I’ve been in that fountain too!)

When Tommy came to DC last October, he said he “jumped right into the gay community.”  He explains that back in Detroit there is not a strong gay community any more.  “There used to be like 60 gay bars there, now there is maybe six!”  Although he says that Detroit gets a bad reputation, there are some really beautiful parts.  “The architecture is amazing” he says as he explains that Detroit has the largest collection of art deco architecture in the US (I always thought it was more of a Miami Beach thing.) 

Tommy says that he will use the money to help someone else out.  “I try to help people all the time” he says.  “What comes around goes around – I live off the kindness of others.” 

Tommy showed me some of his dance moves (photo: Reed)

I asked him what he was doing for money and he replied, “Tomorrow I am starting a stripper job – I need a wig though, know anywhere I can get one?”  I actually don’t have a lot of knowledge of wigs surprisingly.  He also told me that he uses a pseudonym for his dancing.  “I go by Gordon – it’s my brother and dad’s name.”  Wow…that just seems wrong.  If I found out my brother was stripping and using my Dad’s name, I think I would be more upset that he was using Dad’s name than I would be that he was stripping. 

Tommy told me that he used to be a designer until he was laid off three years ago.  And before that – 27 years ago to be exact – he used to do modeling.  In fact he said that he was the first male model for Calvin Klein.

We exchanged contact information and I said goodbye.  Just then Loni started talking to a guy who approached her.  This guy seemed really strange, like he was under the influence of something or had some mental illness.  Tommy was quick to make sure that she was ok.  Once the other guy left, Loni went on her way and I started heading home.  Tommy and I walked a short ways together and chatted a little more.   He told me that some times he writes phrases with chalk on the sidewalk at Dupont Circle.  “I like this one thing I wrote, Speak without doubt!”  I like that too.

I actually saw Tommy again today in Dupont Circle, but he was busy talking with someone.  I have a feeling I will see him some more.

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I have hit the streets every single day for the past 225 days searching for someone to give my $10 to.  This journey started out during a difficult time for me.  For the first time since I was 12 (stop calling the Department of Labor, I was a paper boy!) I was out of a job.  Through the Year of Giving I meet so many other amazing people who are in similar situations and every day they look for work or someone who will give them a chance.  Today I met a person who does just that!

Robert (photo: Reed)

Robert Egger is the Founder and President of the DC Central Kitchen, the nation’s first “community kitchen”, where unemployed men and women learn marketable culinary skills while donated food is converted into wholesome meals.  Pretty cool, eh?

At 52, Robert’s life has taken an unlikely course for someone whose dream 30 years ago was to open the quintessential nightclub in the country.  Back then he worked in clubs and bars and even got to see the Ramones and Bruce Springsteen play in what is now the Darlington House in Dupont.  As we walk east along E Street, Robert explains how in 1989 he cooked up this idea to feed the poor after a volunteer experience.  20 million meals later, he and DC Central Kitchen have done a lot of good and given over 700 men and women full-time employment as well!

In one of our tangents, Robert explained how two men covered the entire country painting Mail Pouch signs on barns. One went and made the deals and the other followed painting he barns.

I had seen Robert once before.  He spoke at an event earlier this year and I was so impressed at how he sees the world.  He can take 5 random subject ingredients, toss them together and come up with a coherent message that is meaningful and memorable.  It’s no surprise that he spends a great deal of his time speaking to groups around the country about harnessing nonprofit power.

He was born in the little town of Milton, Florida (population about 10,000) nine months after his parents tied the knot.  “I was a wedding night baby!” he says with a wide grin that reaches outside of his goatee.  “1958 – me, Madonna, Prince and Kevin Bacon!”  Can you name three famous people who were born the same year you were?   I don’t think I can.

One thing you definitely notice about Robert is that he speaks fast.  Trying to walk and jot down notes was nearly impossible so I busted out the Flip camera.  Try to keep up…

As he arrives back at the DC Central Kitchen, a young woman named Becky walks by.  Robert snags her and beams as he tells me what a great job she has done leading their job placement program.  “We placed 20 out of 21 candidates in our last class” Becky says and then hustles back to work.

As she slips out of sight I shift back into my list of questions for Robert.  Before I could even get my next thought conjured up in my head another team member, Quinn, walks by.  Robert pulls him aside and says “I know exactly what I am going to do with this $10 and Quinn here is going to make it happen!”  Quinn’s face looked like most people’s face when I tell them I want to give them $10…a little confused.  But he goes with the flow and Robert explains how giving the $10 to Quinn will impact thousands of people in the DC area.  This is cool, check it out.

Not only is he the President of DC Central Kitchen, but he has parlayed his success as a social entrepreneur into two other related ventures, the Campus Kitchens Project and Fresh Start Catering.  On top of that he founded a political action group that represents the voice of social enterprise and non-profits called V3 and wrote a book (which I just bought!) called Begging for Change that is a plea for reform for the 800 billion dollar non-profit sector.

The guy is busy and keeps an insane calendar, but the chaos of his schedule puts him in front of people all across this country.  And when he is in cabs or waiting for a plane to depart he is updating his twitter and facebook status.  Hopefully you will get the chance to speak with Robert one day – it’s invigorating.  My suggestion if you see him, and you want to try to get him to sit still for a second, is to offer him big-ass margarita made with Herradura Tequila and freshly squeezed lime juice.  Drop me a line and let me know if it works!

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Eric fights to protect the right to affordable housing in the District (photo: Reed)

Recently I met Ca’Vonn, a struggling mother of six in DC’s Shaw neighborhood who is part of the Tent City DC community at the corner of 7th and R Streets in Northwest.  On one of my other visits to the controversial Parcel 42 I met Eric Sheptock.  Eric is a homeless advocate who’s life story is as amazing as it is horrific. 

He tells me a chilling story about a couple who decided they no longer wanted there eight-month-old baby boy and attempted to murder the child by beating the innocent infant until they cracked his head open and left him to die in a New Jersey motel.  Thankfully someone found the bludgeoned baby and rushed him to the hospital.  Unfortunately this isn’t an except from a story by Stephen King or Richard Laymon, it’s Eric’s real life story 

This stomach churning saga has a happy ending though.  Eric survived the ordeal and five years of foster care until he was later adopted by a family in New Jersey: the Sheptocks.  If the name sounds familiar, you might have heard about them before.  They had seven children of their own and adopted 30 others.  That’s quite a family.  They have been in the media several times and there was even a book written about them! 

Eric and his family moved around in New Jersey and finally settled in Florida.  As a young adult he got a job there at a hospital and worked there for a couple of years until he left over a disagreement.  He took his final check and decided to go to New Jersey.  In 1994 his money ran out and Eric became homeless; a situation that he has maintained on and off since that time.  That was not the only tragedy of 1994.  On August 11th of the same year his petite 33-year-old girlfriend, a six-pack a day drinker, died of cirrhosis of the liver.  

In 2005 Eric was back in Florida living in a tent in the woods.  He was fed up with the war that we were waging in Iraq and decided to move to Washington, DC and become an activist.  He set out on July 6th which was President Bush’s birthday coincidentally. 

Eric at Parcel 42 aka Tent City DC at 7th and R in NW (photo: Reed)

He walked and hitchhiked most of the way.  He told me several amazing stories about his journey.  One that I will share with you is that as Eric was walking through Virginia he came into the town of Farmville late one evening.  There were no street lamps there due to some city ordinances or something but he did finally see a light off in the distance.  When he got closer he realized that the light was coming from the porch of a church.  Despite the porch crawling with large spiders, he made it his resting place for the night.  He awoke the next morning, Sunday, to find the spiders replaced by churchgoers.  They invited him in to service, fed him and gave him $84 from a collection they passed around for him.  He went on his way and was offered a ride by a passerby who ended up driving him almost 50 miles out of his way to a bus stop in Charlottesville, VA.  When Eric tried to offer him some money for the gas, the driver refused and actually gave him $20! 

Soon after arriving in DC he started advocating to keep the Franklin Shelter open.  He met with former Mayor Williams, current Mayor Fenty and others and shook their hand as they promised that they would all support keeping the facility open.  Sadly, once in office, Eric says that Fenty closed the shelter. 

Eric continues to advocate for homeless members of our community as well as those who have housing but struggle to keep up with rising rental rates.  He has over 4,000 friends on facebook and 700 followers on twitter.  This is impressive given that he says he didn’t know how to use a computer until four years ago.  

With his feet-on-the-ground approach coupled with his efforts in social media, Eric has become the voice for so many who have been muted due to their social and economic situation.  He hopes to some day find gainful employment that allows him to secure affordable housing for low-income and homeless individuals.  Although he has been successful in doing this for a handful of people, he wants to scale his efforts to a more seismic level.  

Eric says he will put $5 on his Metro card and use the remaining $5 for food. 

I had the opportunity to record some of his passion for affordable housing for DC residents.  The following video is a little long (when I tried to use my free editor, it lowered the quality so bad that I felt it was better to leave in its original uncut format), but very informative.  Take a minute to listen to Eric and learn about the current struggles related to affordable housing in our nation’s capital.

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Carlton sometimes does as many as 10 paintings a day (photo: Reed)

Carlton is sprawled out on the sidewalk in front of Bank of America along Dupont Circle, his feet extending over the edge of the curb and into traffic.  His right hand, covered with paint, swiftly dances over the canvas of a landscape of a far off mountain accompanied by some trees in the foreground.  He pops up and talks to a man who approaches him.  He displays another painting that he has next to him to the man.  They talk for a few minutes and then the man takes his wallet out and pulls a twenty from it and places it in Carlton’s hand.  In exchange he hands him the painting.

I decided to go up to Carlton and ask if he would accept my $10.  He was genuinely curious about what I was doing.  We chatted about his past, the present and the future.  It was a pretty memorable evening.

photo: Reed

At 45 Carlton has been through a lot.  But painting here at Dupont Circle brings his story full circle.  You see it was here about 10 years ago that he used to sleep in the park and panhandle in front of the CVS.  He was a homeless out-of-work drug user.  One evening he went into the park and shot up with some dirty needles.  He suspects it was that specific night that he contracted the HIV virus.  He knew it wasn’t a good idea, but the addiction had blurred his judgment.  It reminds me of Rob from Day 117 who said, “The thing about addiction is that people continue these behaviors in spite of catastrophic consequences.”  Anyway, he went years without knowing he was infected until he started to get quite ill and lost a considerable amount of weight.  He went to the hospital and found out that he was HIV positive.  He says that his health is good these days thanks to three little pills that he takes every day.  He says he knocked his drug addiction although still drinks alcohol which I could smell on his breath.

It was only about a year and a half ago that Carlton started painting.  “I didn’t want to panhandle no more” he said.  He got started when a woman left him some paint by the bench where he was sleeping.  He decided to give it a try.  “God taught me,” he answers when I ask if he was self-taught.  The reason he chooses to paint at Dupont Circle is that he hopes that some of the same people who used to see him strung out years ago will see him today and realize that he has talent and that he has improved his situation.  He talks to me about why he likes to paint landscapes, how he has deals with being HIV positive and being homeless:

With the money that I gave him he said he was going to buy some colored paints.

Here is another few minutes of my conversation with Carlton. I asked him how others can help him and I thought his answer was beautiful.

I really enjoyed talking with him.  As it got late and he finished his last painting he said that he needed to catch the Metro.  “Hey, why don’t you take this painting” he offers as he pushes the painting you see in these pictures toward me.  I told him that I couldn’t receive anything in return for the $10 but I did appreciate the gesture.

 
If you would like to find Carlton, he is often at Dupont Circle in front of the Bank of America during the afternoons.  And sometimes he is there at night, like today.  His paintings range from $20 and up, depending on the size and type.

UPDATE: I ran into Carlton on June 1, 2011 and visited with him for a while.  You can read about my latest encounter with him by clicking here.

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A Bread for the City volunteer plates food for the picnic guests (photo: Reed)

The Year of Giving has given me a renewed appreciation for so many organizations in the DC area that provide tremendous social good.  Several people who have been daily recipients of the Year of Giving have sung the praises of organizations such as:  American Coalition for Fathers and Children, Bread for the City, DC Cares, DC Central Kitchen, Food and Friends, Green Door, Martha’s Table, Miriam’s Kitchen, SOME, Street Sense, etc.  Today’s recipient possibly owe’s his wife’s life to a physician at one of these organizations.

Started in 1974, Bread for the City is a front line agency serving Washington’s poor.  The agency began as two organizations; Zacchaeus Free Clinic began in 1974 as a volunteer-run free medical clinic, and Bread for the City was created in 1976 by a coalition of downtown churches to feed and clothe the poor.  The two entities merged in 1995.  Today, we operate two Centers in the District of Columbia and provide direct services to low-income residents of Washington, DC.  All of our services are free.  Our mission is to provide comprehensive services, including food, clothing, medical care, legal and social services to low-income Washington, DC residents in an atmosphere of dignity and respect.  – Source: www.breadforthecity.org

I have been aware of Bread for the City for many years, however, haven’t had the chance to get to know their services first hand.  So I decided to attend their Parking Lot Picnic and got to meet several of the staff members there and even got a tour of the facility which is currently being expanded (Thanks Kristin!)  Some of their staff worked hard all afternoon to provide hot dogs and hamburgers for everyone.  I grabbed a burger and sat down at a table next to Mike.  I had no idea how he and his story would impact me.

Mike and Reed (photo: Marnette)

Mike has been volunteering at Bread for the City for the last three years, but his relationship with the organization goes back much further.  You see Mike was a bicycle messenger and used to do a lot of deliveries for an insurance claims center.  He would go to Bread for the City and pick up claims for their clients and then deliver them to the processing center.  He was there all the time.  “Of all the places that I had to go and make a pick-up, this is the only place that had all their forms ready and organized” he said.

Well during the time that he was picking up forms at Bread for the City, his wife was struggling with a mysterious illness.  “No one could figure it out.  She couldn’t hold anything down” he said.  “No fluids, nothing!”  She got down to 98 pounds and was deathly ill.  “About once a week we would have to call an ambulance and she’d go in and they’d give her an IV and she’d be better for a while, but then when she would get home it’d start again.”  They stuck her so many times that they had to resort to her neck in order to find good veins.

Finally one day he was at Bread for the City and met Dr. Randi, the organization’s medical director.  Dr. Randi agreed to take a look at his wife’s situation and noticed she was on all kinds of medications.  Dr. Randi ordered her to stop taking all the medicine for a while so that she could start to understand what was going wrong and then carefully prescribe medicine to correct the issues that she discovers.  Well guess what happened?  After Marnette, Mike’s wife, went off all the medicine, she started getting better.  She was holding down food and putting on weight.  It wasn’t long before she was perfectly fine.  I met Marnette, who works in food service at Powell Elementary School, and she looked healthy and said she couldn’t feel better today.  They are both extremely thankful for Dr. Randi’s dedication and compassion.

Photo: Reed

Fast forward to the present.  He and his wife are happily married and healthy.  Mike no longer is a bike messenger.  “The bike messenger business has completely changed.”  According to Mike after 9/11, the anthrax scares and the increased exchange of electronic files, the number of bike messengers in DC plummeted.  Now he drives tour buses and limousines.  “Instead of taking envelopes from Point A to Point B, I take people!”

Mike said that he was going to use the $10 to buy groceries for him and his wife.

If you would like to volunteer or support Bread for the City, go to their website and click on “Get Involved.”

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Gwin selling the Street Sense (photo: Reed)

Gwin was selling the Street Sense newspaper at the South edge of Dupont Circle in between 19th Street and Connecticut Avenue. I was walking through the circle when I spotted the bright yellow vest that identifies her as a Street Sense vendor.

Gwin has an interesting story. Originally from Salisbury, NC, she told me about the early days of her life when she lived near Elizabeth Dole’s home. I can’t remember now which, but either she or Mrs. Dole lived on Ellis Street, which was named for Governor Ellis who died in office in 1861.

She talks a little bit about her background and what she would like to do professionally on this video clip.

It’s hard to imagine that an educated person who goes to law school and becomes an attorney can end up homeless, but Gwin is proof of that. Although not homeless now, she says that she has been homeless in at least a half-dozen cities across the country. “Homelessness is many things,” she tells me. “There are good parts and bad parts to being homeless.” Among the good parts she lists: meeting people, celebrations with friends, traveling, seeing people help one another, and even special occasions like a holiday party she recalls that was put on for the homeless in Boston where they served steak and lobster. Of course she shares plenty of negatives too: moral despair, being looked down upon, realizing your dreams will not materialize, etc.

Gwin kept her same calm demeanor the entire time and seemed very comfortable talking about a variety of different subjects. We talked about all kinds of things; from the Obama administration to circular migration to the legalization of marijuana. She also mentioned that she was a poet and that I could find her works on the Internet. I have not been able to locate them yet, but when I do I will share them here. She enjoys writing a lot and would even like to write a book on homelessness some day.

Before I left I asked her about the $10 and she said that will be used to buy her some soap and a few other toiletries that she says she needs to get this week.
I asked her what dreams she still has for herself. “It’s too late to think about dreams. Now it’s retire, work part-time and be able to help others.” Maybe that is in fact her dream. I asked her where she wants to retire and she said either Chicago or some place further west. “I would like to find a place to live where I could get a part-time job and eventually collect a pension.”

Gwin (photo: Reed)

Before leaving I asked if I could take a few photos of her selling the paper.  She made me laugh a little because she kept hiding behind the newspapers for most of them.  She had been so comfortable with the camera when I took pictures of her sitting down and also used my video camera, but for some reason she got a little shy when she was working.  I asked her if she could move the papers a little so that I could see her face and she nodded her head yes with a sheepish smile, but didn’t move them too much.  I managed to get a couple of shots though.

For those in the downtown area, keep an eye out for Gwin, especially near the Dupont Circle SOUTH Metro entrance near the Krispy Kreme.

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The Year of Giving does not focus on any one “type” of person. People often ask me how I select the recipients. Sure, some days I go out with a type of person in mind, however many times it is just a feeling I get when I am sitting next to somebody on the bus or watching a mother play with her child in a park. Having said this, I have given my $10 to a considerable amount of people who are currently or who have in the past experienced homelessness.

The US Government defines homelessness as follows (Source: US Department of Housing and Urban Development)

The term “homeless” or “homeless individual or homeless person” includes-

  1. an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; and
  2. an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is -
    1. a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and transitional housing for the mentally ill);
    2. an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or
    3. a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.

Photo: Jon Howell

Although I don’t think that the government has came up with the best definition here, it is certainly better than the definition that usually comes to people’s mind when they hear that someone is homeless. The image of someone sleeping on the streets.

The area that I have found particularly interesting to study here is the one that deals with those who lack “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” So many people today fall into this category and they are often not counted in statistics on homeless populations. The Year of Giving has taught me an immense amount about the people who struggle with this every day. I often forget how fortunate I am to have such a comfortable environment to keep my belongings, prepare my meals and sleep at night.

As a result of the writings, photographs and videos that I have done about the homeless I was nominated for the David Pike Excellence in Journalism Award. Although Maria Glod from the Washington Post ended up winning the award, I was extremely honored to have even been nominated for my work.

Photo: Jon Howell

I went to the award ceremony with my father and brother. It was a very nice evening. I took pictures which I can try to post here once I get my computer fixed. I thought I would look for a recipient for my $10 at the event, so I had my small black Moleskine journal with me to take notes. As it turns out, the notebook slid out of my bag and remained underneath my seat when we left the auditorium. I noticed that I was missing it immediately and had an idea that it was probably under the seat so I went back and checked but didn’t find anything. Now I was concerned, because I knew I had it with me. Maybe somebody turned it in, right?

Well, just as I was looking around to ask someone if anyone had turned it in, a young man who I recognized from being the photographer at the event, walked over to me and gave me the book. Well, on my Moleskine notebook it is clearly marked that there is a reward for returning it to me. You guessed it, that reward is $10!

I thanked Jon and happily handed him the $10. He explained that he was an intern working at Street Sense for the summer as a photographer. A photo journalism major at the University of North Texas, Jon is here in DC through a partnership with the George Washington University. Still holding his Canon Rebel XTi in his hands, he mentioned he was on his way to the reception to take more photographs. I didn’t want to hold him up so I tried to be quick.

Baylor rugby player (Photo: Jon Howell)

I found out that Jon recently transferred to the University of North Texas from Angelo State University in San Angelo, TX. He played rugby for two years there and hopes to continue playing at North Texas. “It’s different than football,” he says, “you have to learn how to hit the other guy differently.” He talks about the importance that strategy plays in the game as well. But even strategy doesn’t protect you from getting a little banged up. Jon has broken his nose three times (weird, so have I!) and had his AC separated off the clavicle.

Off the field Jon’s artistic interest is not limited to photography. He also loves music. “I own a record store in Abilene, Texas” he says. “You mean old school vinyl records?” I asked. He nodded his head and confirmed my suspicion. This struck me as odd. CDs were already starting to dominate as the preferred physical medium for music by the time he was born! But this has nothing to do with that. This is more about the relationship someone has with music. There is something almost romantic about vinyl records.

Record player (Photo: Jon Howell)

I was just surprised to discover that someone his age who grew up in an era full of hi-tech gizmos would feel so strongly about this format of music that he would own a record store. Let’s not forget how cool it is that at 19 he owns his own record store!

Jon said he was going to use the $10 to get some food that week. As an unpaid intern he has to be careful with his spending.

We talked about Washington, DC some. “The first time I came here was when I was in the eighth grade. I remember seeing the homeless and it made an impression on me.” He also took lots of photos while he was here. Jon was very excited to to return to Washington and work with an organization like Street Sense which does so much for the city’s homeless citizens.

Narrow DC street (Photo: Jon Howell, Street Sense)

His internship will be up in August and he will return to Texas. With him he will take much more than the thousands of photos he has shot and the college credits that he has earned. He will take with him an experience that I believe will change the course of his life as it has changed mine. The opportunity to learn about and work with this city’s homeless population has opened my eyes and my heart in so many ways.

I said goodbye to Jon and let him get to work.  The Award Ceremony reception had left over food and coffee which I took with me a few blocks away to the park at 20th and Pennsylvania.  There I found several people who were happy to receive some of the leftovers.  As I was walking around the park I found one man laying in the grass with nothing but the clothes on his back.  I was worried that he might not be ok, so I walked over and asked.  The man awoke from his sleep and turned out to beAnthony from Day 6! He and I chatted for a while and he seemed well, although sufficiently inebriated.   It was good to see him.  I chatted with another man for nearly an hour and a half.  It was now midnight and my brother and father were waiting for me across the street (they had went to dinner when I went to deliver the food and coffee).  It was a great night!

Jon (Photo: Reed)

A special thanks to Jon for allowing me to post some of his photographs in this blog. Click here to check out more of Jon’s photography.

UPDATE: 10/27/2010

I got an update from Jon.  Here it is…

Hey man its been awhile. Hope all is well in DC and with your giving. Sorry I never got to give you a photo lesson, it was just so crazy the whole time I was there. I’m working for the newspaper at UNT doing photography and multi-media news videos and playing for the UNT rugby team. I also just got a job working as a field representative for  home improvement place in Lewisville. I go door to door to offer a free estimate on any projects they may have on their homes. My brother also graduated from film school and got signed to an agency here in Dallas. He just got cast in stage production and is about to audition for another. The record store is still in business and doing pretty good. I still haven’t found a location for here in Denton but the one in Abilene is doing well. Hope to hear back from you.

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