This story was written shortly after it occurred in the early 1980s and remains one of my favorites. It is all true.
My close encounter with a homeless family occurred in the 1980s in our neighborhood in Washington when a homeless family appeared one cold Saint Patrick’s Day, shivering, in front of our local drugstore. Embry saw them first; and when I got home, she handed me a stack of blankets and directed me to see what I could do to help. It was around nine o’clock in the evening, and the wind chill had to have been in the twenties.
I walked over to the drugstore, which was only a few minutes’ walk from our house, where in the dark shadows I saw a young couple and three small children huddled next to the entrance to the drug store. People were walking past them, not making eye contact. It is true that you never know what to do in situations like this. Should you give money to a beggar or not? What good does it really do? But they were not even begging, just sitting on the sidewalk, freezing. Well, I had these blankets, and I had to admit that the family was a pretty pitiful sight. So what do you say? What do you do?
I handed them the blankets and asked where they were planning to spend the night. The husband, probably around thirty, answered with a thick Spanish accent, “Church, señor.” Thank God, I thought. The idea of them freezing was bad enough, but the thought of them ending up in our house was out of the question. We all have limits. The very idea of a homeless family actually moving into our house sent chills down my spine—especially since my parents were planning to visit us and would arrive in about a week.
While I suspected he was not telling the truth, I was conflicted. I just couldn’t abandon them to the elements, but I surely could not invite them to spend the cold night in our house. So I came up with a brilliant compromise. They would have to be on their own for this night, but gong forward I could help. What they needed was money. I could give them money, but that would be condescending and not long lasting. What they needed even more was employment. I thought for a moment. Our house always needed work. Maybe the guy could do a little painting. When I asked if he could paint, he nodded enthusiastically, yes, and we agreed to a plan. He would come by the next day, a Saturday, return the blankets, and I would pay him to do a little painting. I suggested he come by around mid morning and gave him our address. I smiled as I returned home and reported the successful outcome to Embry.
At six am the next day, we were awakened by a loud banging on the front door. I had no idea who could be knocking on our door so early on a Saturday, stumbled out of bed, and inched my way down the stairs trying to see who it might be. It was the homeless family. In the dawn I was able to get a better look at them. The guy was short and stocky and had a big mustache; and his wife had dark hair and rather pretty. She had the features of a native American and was quite pregnant. The three little ones in tow looked to me like they were about four, two and a few months old.
“Here to paint, señor!”
“Well, yes, but it is a bit early…”
I was right. They really did not have a place to stay that night and ended up spending the night on the street. The guy’s name was José, and his wife was named Rosa. Rosa said that her husband was from El Salvador and she was part Sioux and part Seminole and grew up in New Mexico. They were very appreciative for the blankets, which she said probably saved their lives. She went on to say that they had found a place they could rent for $250 a month, which required a deposit. But they were flat broke. It was hard to understand José with his thick accent, but Rosa usually translated in understandable English. Oddly, she would repeat to José what I said in English, not Spanish.
Okay, I thought, we at least have a baseline number to work from. If I could give José a painting job for $250, that would solve the housing problem. They could put down the deposit for the apartment. There was still an issue regarding food, but at least they would have a roof over their heads, and it would be a start. So, I proposed to José that he paint our master bedroom for $250 and that I would even advance him the money so that he could secure the apartment that day. And I also agreed to buy all the painting supplies. I had recent estimates for painting a room, and the $250 I negotiated was about the right number. Pretty fair deal—we would get a room painted, and José and his family would get shelter and a start on the road to employment.
Day One started off well. Andrew, our seventeen year old son, and his thirteen year old sister, Jessica, were a bit puzzled to find a rag tag family in our living room when they came down for breakfast but seemed to understand what was going on and why we were doing this. I took José to the hardware store where we got all the supplies; and he enthusiastically started to paint the bedroom while his wife watched the children, who by now were running, crawling or toddling around the house terrifying our dog and cat. Shortly after lunch everyone disappeared, presumably to put down the $250 on the apartment.
By six o’clock they had not returned, and I naturally assumed they were warmly tucked away in their new apartment. In fact, I was feeling so good about the situation, I offered to treat everyone to pizza at one of our neighborhood restaurants. As the four of us munched away, I used the occasion as a teaching moment. I had always tried to be a role model for our children, to set an example. I pointed out how I was empowering this poor, homeless family and not just giving them a handout, how actions like this could change the world, and how proud they should be to have a father who really got it, who understood how to make a positive impact in the world.
I noticed some skeptical, puzzled looks but got generally approving nods.
On the way back home, as I turned into our driveway, I almost ran into the back of a car with the motor running, parked in our driveway. On the back window was a sticker which read “Dartmouth College.” I figured the car belonged to a friend of the teenage children of our neighbors, who were always blocking the shared driveway. After muttering a few curse words, I got out of my car and walked over to the car with the Dartmouth College sticker. As I got closer, I could see that two people were in the front seat and several smaller bodies were squirming around in the back. It was José. What was he doing with this car? Why was he in our driveway?
“Oh, just parking, señor,” he cheerfully replied. His children were crying and whimpering in the back seat.
“But where did you get the car?”
His wife translated his broken English, “He says he bought it today. Good value. $250 down.”
Well, so much for the nice, cozy apartment. But where were they going to sleep tonight? His wife said that they were going to sleep in the car but added that it was bitter cold and that she was afraid the children would get sick.
Okay, back to square one. In the course of history many decisions have been made that upon historical reflection and hindsight were strategic errors. They were decisions that set a course of action which no one had predicted but that would ultimately result in tragic failure. Napoleon’s foray into Russia, resulting in Waterloo, comes to mind. The start of World War I. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. There are many. The decision I was about to make falls into this category.
I took a deep breath and asked timidly, “Well, why don’t you just stay here for the night?” My family had remained in our car and were observing the action with great interest.
José protested unconvincingly that sleeping in the car was fine. His wife pleaded for him to let them come in; and before I could walk back to my car to fill everyone in on what was happening, the entire family was on our front porch, shivering and anxious to get in. “God bless, God bless,” said Rosa several times. The dye was cast.
This happened on the evening of Day One. There are two things you need to know. First, Embry was leaving on Sunday, the very next day, for a business trip to California and taking Jessica with her and would not return for several days. Second, my parents were arriving the day after Embry and Jessica returned to spend the week before Easter with us as was their custom. They had nonrefundable plane tickets. My parents were wonderful, tolerant people, but they were also of the older generation. To cohabitate with a homeless family would have sent them to an early grave. But on that cold Saturday evening, all that seemed in the distant future.
So, on Day Two, on Sunday afternoon, I took Embry and Jessica to the airport. We talked about the situation at length in the car. That morning Rosa had confided to Jessica that she was terrified of her husband, that he beat her constantly and that she had to escape. Jessica considered giving her all her savings from odd jobs. Both Embry and Jessica were very supportive and understanding. But they both were headed to sunny California. Their last words of encouragement were that they hoped I would be able to work it all out. I grimly headed back to the house.
I had offered the homeless family the use of our bedroom in the basement, which we used as a guest room and where my parents usually stayed. That is where the homeless family slept, but when I got home it was obvious that they had the run of the house. The living room was a wreck, and the house had the smell of a zoo with soiled pampers rolled up in virtually every available wastebasket. Andrew had disappeared as had our dog and cat. I concluded that my best hope for survival was to avoid the house as much as possible. I went directly to the bedroom, shut the door and collapsed in bed. I could not help noticing that only a very small portion of one wall had been painted and that no progress had been made since around ten o’clock when he started. José was not even at the house when I returned.
The next day, Day Three, I got up as early as possible, left a note that I hoped José would finish the work that day. If the house was a wreck on Day Two, on the morning of Day Three it was in shambles. Having a bowl of cereal—the only food I could find in the house–I bumped into Andrew, who was getting ready to leave for school.
“Dad,” he said cheerfully. “I think what you are doing is really good, and I support it. When you get it all worked out and the family is gone, let me know. Until then I am moving in with Bronson.” Bronson was Andrew’s best friend.
Okay, I could understand that. So now it was just me, José and his family. Day Three was not getting off to a good start. I tore up the note and rewrote it saying that the job had to get done now or else. I returned home at the end of Day Three around nine in the evening, anxious to see what work had been done in the master bedroom. The homeless family did not seem to be around, and there was a note scribbled on a typewriter sheet taped to the bedroom door. “Dad, I don’t think you want to go in here. See you when it’s over. Love, Andrew.” He must have had to come back to pick up something.
With a trembling hand I slowly opened the door. The room looked like it had been hit by a tornado. José had taken all my clothes out of the closet and thrown them on the bed; and in painting the room, he had splattered paint everywhere—on the bed, on the rug, on the floor, and most unfortunate, on all my clothes. He had poured the paint into a pan in order to use a roller, and the animals had walked across the pan leaving paw prints everywhere. This was actually a positive sign that the pets were still alive since I had no idea where they were hiding. Well, I had to admit: José had gotten the message, he was finally painting the room. I guessed he was about half finished. I slept in Andrew’s room in the attic where to my relief I found both the dog and the cat cowering in the corner.
So, on the morning of Day Four I admitted that I had a problem. I remember hearing somewhere that the first step in any 12-step recovery program is to fess up, to realize your shortcomings, then to act. I also was aware that on or about Day Eight, my parents would arrive. Should the homeless family still be ensconced in the Howell house at that time, it would be a nuclear event, as in nuclear bomb. The clock was ticketing.
I conferred with several of my colleagues at work. After all, I was a consultant in developing affordable housing. We should know how to handle homeless issues, right? Everyone suggested that I should get them into a homeless shelter. The problem was that at that time there were few options in D.C. for homeless families, only for homeless single people. With some calls I determined that there was one shelter for homeless families called “The Pitts.” Since it was in a decent neighborhood not too far from our house, I decided to drive over and give it a look. The name was derived from its former use, “The Pitts Hotel,” and someone I talked to in my search described it as something of a stop gap measure, “not in the best of shape.” That was putting it mildly. Its name said it all. The building was rundown and decrepit with paint coming off the sides, a couple of broken windows, trash everywhere, and graffiti on the walls.
I paused and looked at it again: “Hey,” I said to myself, “looks like a pretty good option to me.”
So, when I got home, I was pleased to find José, though he did not appear to be doing any painting and the room remained as I had left it–half painted except my clothes, now quite colorful with blue and green splotches, had been moved to the floor.
“José,” I replied, “Have you ever considered living in a homeless shelter? I understand that many are quite nice. In fact there is one very near here, the Pitts.”
“No Pitts, man, no shelter. Shelter no good.”
I encouraged him to be open minded and told him I was making a call to the Pitts to see if they have any openings. A pleasant enough person answered the phone and replied that they did have room for homeless families. I explained that I had a very nice family temporarily living with me and would like to bring them over to look at the place.
“Well, don’t waste your time,” she exclaimed, “We are not taking the Chavez family. They are disruptive and we have already evicted them twice. They are banned from the premises forever.”
I was stunned. She had not even given me a chance to provide additional information about the family. “Wait a minute,” I argued, “I didn’t say who they were. I don’t even know what their last name is.”
The woman replied in a weary and borderline sarcastic tone, “The guy, is he a Mexican with a mustache and short?”
He was from El Salvador, but he was short and had a mustache.
“Wife, some kind of American Indian, pregnant?”
“Three tiny kids?”
“Now hold on one minute.” I turned to José. “José, what is your last name?”
I sadly reported to her that it did seem to be the Chavez family after all. She told me not to feel too bad since I was the fifth family who had tried to bring them in over the past year. “Where do you live anyway, Georgetown?” I told her Cleveland Park.
“That figures, “she said, “But Georgetown is their favorite.”
When I asked her how I could get them out of my house, she said except for the Pitts, there were no shelters for homeless families with vacancies in D.C.; and if there were, they would not take the Chavez family. They were blacklisted. Maybe I should try one of the surrounding counties where the family was not known.
I thanked her for her time and immediately called Fairfax County, explaining that I had a very nice, temporarily homeless family staying with me and wondered if they had space available. “Absolutely,” she replied proudly, “Fairfax County has a brand-new facility, state of the art, and there is plenty of room. Bring them in.”
I felt an enormous weight lifted from my shoulders. Thank God, I thought, at last a break. I told her I would bring them by in about an hour. All she needed was a little information starting with my address. When I told her I lived on Macomb Street, she paused for a moment and said that it did not seem like a Fairfax County address. I told her it was in D.C.
“Sorry, we only take homeless Fairfax County families. You must take them to a shelter in D.C. You will find that policy applies everywhere.”
I explained my desperate situation, to which she volunteered, “Well, you can bring them across the bridge and then dump them. Then call 911 and high tail it back to D.C. They will probably end up here that way.”
And that is how Day Four ended. Work on the room continued to be at a standstill.
The next day, Day Five, when I briefed my colleagues at the office on the latest events, someone gave me the name of a good landlord/tenant lawyer, whom I called immediately. I explained the situation and asked him what my options were. The key issue, he said, is whether I actually invited them into my house. Well, yes, I told him that it was very cold, and I did actually invite them in.
“Bottom line, sir, they own your house. We have the strongest tenant-favored laws in the nation in Washington; and if you invite them in, they stay until they are ready to leave. Even if the law were in your favor, it would take six months to get to a judge to rule, and he would probably rule against you. They are now yours, baby.”
I am not sure whether I had ever experienced a panic attack before, but what I was feeling then was something between a heart attack and a nervous breakdown. I considered calling 911.
That was pretty much the end of Day Five. I returned home around nine, avoided the Chavez family, fed the pets in the upstairs attic, walked the dog, avoided opening the door to the master bedroom, and collapsed in Andrew’s bed, hoping I would wake up the next day to find that all this was just a bizarre nightmare.
On Day Six, I awoke somewhat refreshed but with the somber realization that I had only two days to get them out of the house by whatever means necessary. I took off from work. My sole objective was to make this happen, recognizing that I had virtually nothing left in my arsenal. I had no option but to throw myself at José’s feet and beg for mercy.
Around ten am José wandered upstairs with a paint brush in hand. This was a good sign. When I asked him if he thought he would be able to finish he muttered something about stopping work. Rosa, who accompanied him up the stairs, replied that because he had not been paid, he was stopping work.
“Not been paid? I gave José $250 and have nothing to show for it except ruined clothes!”
José mumbled something else, then translated by Rosa.
“True,” she agreed, “but my husband says he has worked more hours and needs more money to finish.”
Enraged, I regained my self control and told Rosa to tell him I would pay him $12 an hour to finish up.
Hearing that, José screamed at me, “$12 an hour? You no good sheet! You are a no good sheet! $18 an hour they pay in California!”
Rosa translated, “He says you are a no-good shit.”
“Okay, forget the hourly rate. Let’s discuss how much money total it will take for you to finish up the room and clean up everything.”
José calmed down and did some calculations in his head and said something in Spanish. His wife translated that it would be $1,500.
This time it was my turn to lose it. I exploded. “This is a complete outrage! I got an estimate a month ago to paint the room from a professional painter, and it was $250. I have already paid you $250, and what do I have? The room is only half painted. Paint is everywhere—on the rugs, the floor, my clothes are ruined. You have eaten me out of house and home. Soiled pampers are in every corner of the house. The house is a complete wreck. My dog and cat are hiding in terror. My wife has left me. My daughter has left me. My son has left me. And even if I had $1,500 in the bank to give you, which I do not have, I wouldn’t give it to you. You have destroyed my life….” I was trembling before I finished.
I am not sure how much he could understand. But he turned his back and charged down the stairs. Rosa followed him then returned to inform me that I had hurt his feelings. I sat at the top of the stairs, alone, feeling a little better that I had gotten it off my chest, though as a practical matter I was still in deep trouble. The nuclear event was now on a three-day countdown mode.
A few minutes later, he trudged up the stairs with Rosa. “Okay, señor, $1,000, I finish paint.”
“Do you swear, do you swear on a Bible and on your mother’s grave…” I really had no idea what this meant, but it sounded like it might mean something to a Salvadorian. “Do you swear on your mother’s grave that you will finish and clean up everything and be out of this house by Sunday at the latest? Do you swear?”
The “mother’s grave” part must have worked. He nodded, yes.
I breathed a deep sigh. At last, we seemed to be getting somewhere.
He wanted the cash in advance, so I raced to the ATM a block from our house and took out all the money allowed, $400. I was panting as I charged up the stairs to the bedroom, then handed the money to José. Jose shouted something in Spanish, which Rosa translated as “He wants payment in full or he won’t work. He does not trust you.”
“He does not trust me?” I shouted back. “Tell him that is all the money the bank will let me take out and they are not open on Sundays. Tell him I am going to call the police, tell him I am going crazy, tell him I am at the end of my rope, tell him….” I was almost weeping before I had finished.
Rosa looked at me with an expression of shock and compassion. She was beginning to get the gist of how serious this had become. She patted me on my wrist and took the hand of José, who was still fuming, and led him to the other bedroom where they huddled for a few minutes, whispering. When they returned, she smiled and said, “Okay. He will do it.” Frowning, José put the $400 in his pocket and then tromped down the stairs.
Rosa assured me it was fine, that Jose had gone to get a friend to help.
I returned to the half-painted bedroom, sat down on the paint-splattered bead and waited with my head in my hands.
About an hour later José returned, this time smiling, with a friend, who miraculously actually knew how to paint. Four hours later the job was finished, and the room mostly cleaned up.
The only problem was that José wanted the $600 balance, which I explained to Rosa that I would get to him as soon as the banks opened on Monday. That set him off again as he went into his “you no good sheet” routine, but Rosa managed to calm him down and drag him off to their car parked in my driveway. I had no idea where they would be staying, but they packed up their clothes and with the kids in tow hopped in the car and drove off.
For the first time in almost a week I could feel a smile come over my face and tossing a used pamper in the waste basket collapsed on the couch in the living room.
The next morning, Day Seven, José banged on the door at six and I stumbled down the stairs and told him to wait until the bank opened. He sat down in the swing on our front porch until nine when we went to the bank to get the balance I owed him, which he stuffed in his pocket and then stomped off not saying a word, which I considered a victory of sorts since he did not call me a “no good sheet.”
That afternoon Embry and Jessica returned from California, Andrew returned from his friend’s house, and our pets ventured downstairs for the first time in a week. Working together we managed to straighten and clean up the ransacked house hours before my parents arrived the next afternoon for their Easter visit. I do not recall that we said a word to them about the Chavez family or how unknowingly they had dodged a bullet.
Life returned to normal on Macomb Street. However, this was the last time I invited a homeless family to stay in our home.
But I am sad to report that life was not so good for the Chavez family, whom I saw upon occasion pan handling on various street corners downtown. When spotting them I either turned around and walked in the opposite direction or jaywalked to the other side of the street. They finally even made the news when a story appeared in the Style Section of the Washington Post, “Whatever Happened to the Chavez Family?” which was not complimentary and essentially accused the parents of child abuse. Shortly after that they disappeared from the downtown sidewalks. I have no idea what happened but fear the ending for them was not a happy one.