By Paul Duggar
Usually when Quentin Wilson sidles up to people in his perpetual state of need, they hurry away or avert their eyes. Such is life for the homeless.
So here was a new experience Wednesday: Outside a shelter in the District’s NoMa neighborhood, in every direction he turned, volunteers stood waiting with smiles, eager to give him things. Even the weather was a gift, a burst of summer on an autumn morning. After a while, Wilson, 54, sat at a table, bathed in sunshine, and looked through his paper bag.
“Got me some nice water,” he said, eyeing a plastic bottle. “Got me some of this lemon-lime sparkling drink. Got some chips. Got me a turkey sandwich. Got me a care pack: underwear, toothpaste, comb, socks, soap, shampoo. And a pair of Redskins sweatpants.”
Lifting his face skyward, he seemed to suddenly notice: “Hey, it’s beautiful out.”
Project Homeless Connect, organized by the United Way of the National Capital Area, went on all day at the Central Union Mission, at Massachusetts Avenue and G Street NW. Scores of destitute men and women showed up for physical and mental health exams, employment and legal advice, giveaways of daily essentials, and “a smorgasbord of other services,” as Timothy Johnson, a United Way vice president, put it.
Janeen Butler cuts the hair of a homeless woman during Project Homeless Connect at the Central Union Mission in Washington. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Barbers and salon workers washed and styled matted hair. Young people offered food and clothing, toiletries, and kind words. Dental specialists scraped at rotting teeth. Podiatrists clipped and filed toes so hardened that they seemed to be chiseled from granite.
“The idea is, we want to eliminate all the different trips that folks have to make to various organizations and various offices,” Johnson said. The United Way sponsors such events annually in about 300 cities nationwide. “HIV screenings,” he said. “And they’re testing blood sugar and blood pressure. . . . It’s a lot of services under one roof, all in one day.”
Those who came for help have been on the streets and in and out of shelters for weeks or months or years. Their tortuous stories share familiar arcs of lost jobs and broken families, disabling illnesses and personal demons.
Upstairs in one of the shelter’s bunk rooms, they took off their tattered boots and sneakers.
“Today he’s got a bit of fungus,” said podiatrist Vinay Matai, carving dead tissue from the swollen left foot of Pedro Diaz, 69, who can’t remember how long it has been since he was able to walk without pain.
“The nails get really thick, and it gives them a lot of pressure in their feet,” Matai said. “It’s the moisture in the shoes they wear, the fungus that lives in the shoes. Most everybody we’ve seen today has this. So we try to educate them. And we give them new socks.”
Across the hall, Regina Smith, 57, sat in a makeshift hair salon, sharing beauty-parlor gab of a different kind.
A volunteer walks with used military boots that were being given away during Project Homeless Connect. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
As Kia Wooten, a volunteer, cleaned and massaged her scalp, Smith said, “You know, I had my own apartment, but my friend passed away, and I just walked away from it, and then I was into some drugs and stuff, you know what I’m saying?”
The tale went on, ending with: “So I just chill in the park with my friends and stuff. Mainly, I want my own apartment again. I’ve been clean now, off drugs, for six months.”
Wilson was still sitting out front.
Beside him sat Crosswell Reid, 62, also with a paper bag.
“Body lotion, toothbrush, washcloth, razor, nail file,” he said, taking inventory of the contents. “I already had my coffee and ate my sandwich.”
So there wasn’t much to do but enjoy the air.
“Eighty degrees today,” said Reid, pausing to give it some thought. “Yes, very good.”