Oldies but Goodies: Helping the Homeless

This true story happened in the late 1980s and is reprinted in case you missed the first one, which appeared in a blog post many years ago.

In the mid 1980s a homeless family appeared on a 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 a young couple and three small children were huddled next to the entrance of the drug store. A large beat up  suitcase  rested next to them.  People were walking past them, not making eye contact. You never know what to do in situations like this. But they were not begging, just sitting on the sidewalk, freezing.

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 their freezing was bad enough, but the thought of them ending up in our house was out of the question.

What else could I do to help this family?  Our house always needed work. Maybe the guy could do a little painting. When I asked if he could paint, he nodded enthusiastically, and we agreed to a plan. He would come by the next day, Saturday, return the blankets, and I would pay him to do some 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  the next morning, 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 was rather pretty. She had the features of a native American and was quite pregnant. The three little ones in tow were about four, two and a few months old.

 “Here to paint, señor!”

“Well, yes, but it is a bit early…”

The guy’s name was José, and his wife was Rosa. Rosa said that her husband was from El Salvador, and she was part Sioux and part Seminole and had grown up in New Mexico. They were very appreciative for the blankets. She said they had found a place they could rent for $250 a month but that they were flat broke. It was hard to understand José with his thick accent, but Rosa usually translated from broken English to understandable English. Oddly, she would repeat to José what I said in English, not Spanish. Then I realized that she probably did not speak Spanish.

Okay, I thought, we have a baseline number to work from. If I could give José a painting job for $250, that would start to solve the immediate housing problem. There was still an issue of 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 advance him the money so that he could secure the apartment that day.  I also agreed to buy all the painting supplies. I had recent estimates for painting a room, and the $250 I negotiated with José was about the right number. Pretty fair deal—we would get a room painted, José and his family would get shelter and a start on the road to employment.

Day One. Saturday. Andrew, our fourteen-year-old son, and his ten-year-old sister, Jessica, were a bit puzzled to find a ragtag family in our living room when they came down for breakfast on Saturday but seemed to understand. 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 crawling or toddling around the house terrifying our dog and cat. Shortly after lunch everyone disappeared, presumably to put down the $250 for 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 in our family 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 and to set a good 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. On the back window was a sticker which said “Dartmouth College.” I figured the car belonged to a friend of our neighbors’ teenage children, 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 in the driveway. As I got closer, I could see two people in the front seat and several smaller bodies squirming around in the back. It was José and his family.

“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, “My husband says he bought it today. Good value. $250 down.”

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 all were observing the action with great interest.

José protested, saying 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. “God bless, God bless,” said Rosa several times.

This happened on the evening of Day One.

Embry was leaving on Sunday, the very next day, for a business trip to California and taking Jessica with her and would not return until the next Sunday. My parents were arriving on Monday, the day after Embry and Jessica returned to spend the week before Easter with us as was their custom. 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.

Day Two. Sunday. 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 supportive and understanding. But they both were headed to sunny California. 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. 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 diapers rolled up in virtually every available wastebasket.  Andrew had disappeared as had our dog and cat. 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.

Day Three. Monday. 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.

So now it was just me and the homeless 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 six, anxious to see what work had been done to the master bedroom.  No one was 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 there. 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 unfortunately, 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. At least José had gotten the message and was 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 pets cowering in the corner.

 Day Four. Tuesday. I admitted that I had a problem. The first step in any recovery program is to fess up, to realize your shortcomings, and  to take action. I also was aware that on the next Monday, Day 9, my parents would arrive. Should the homeless family still be ensconced in the Howell house at that time, it would be a nuclear event. The clock was ticketing.

I conferred with several of my colleagues at work. Everyone suggested that I should get them into a homeless shelter. The problem was that at that time there were few options for homeless families, only for homeless single people. With some calls I determined that there was one shelter for homeless families called “the Pitts.” It was located in a decent neighborhood not too far from our house, and I decided to drive over and give it a look. The name was derived from its former use, “The Pitts Hotel,” and it was not in the best of shape. The building was rundown and decrepit—paint coming off the sides, a couple of broken windows, trash everywhere, and graffiti.

It looked like a pretty good option to me.

So when I got home, I was pleased to find José, though he was not doing any painting, and the room remained half painted in its chaotic condition.

“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 had any room.  A pleasant enough woman answered the phone and replied that they did have room for homeless families. I explained that I had a family temporarily living with me and would like to bring them over to take a 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.”

“Wait a minute, I didn’t say who they were. I don’t even know what their last name is.”

“The guy, 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?”

“Well, yes.”

“Three tiny kids?”

“Now hold on one minute. I turned to José. “José, what is your last name?”


I sadly reported that it was Chavez family. She told me not to feel too bad since I was the fourth or fifth family who had tried to bring them in over the past year. “Where do you live, Georgetown?” she asked. 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 DC; and if there were, they would not take the Chavez family. They were blacklisted. Maybe I should try one of the 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 said, Fairfax County had a brand new facility, state of the art, and there was plenty of room. It seemed most of the homeless families were in DC. 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 DC.

“Sorry, we only take homeless Fairfax County families. You must go to DC. 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 DC. They will probably end up here that way.”

And that is how Day Four ended. Work on the room seemed to be at a standstill.

Day Five. Wednesday. 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 had 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. DC has the strongest tenant-favored laws in the nation; and if you invited them in, they will stay there until they are ready to leave. Even if the law were in your favor, it would take six months to get  a judge to rule and he would probably rule against you. They are now yours, baby.”

I felt a panic attack coming on and considered calling 911.

That was the end of Day Five. I returned home late, around nine, avoided the Chavez family, fed the pets in the upstairs attic, walked the dog, and collapsed in Andrew’s bed, hoping I would wake up the next day to find that all this was just a bizarre nightmare.

Day Six. Thursday. I awoke somewhat refreshed but with the somber realization that I had three 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 their feet and beg for mercy.

Around ten in the morning 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 said he was stopping work because he had not been paid. Not been paid? I had advanced him $250. He replied that he had already worked more hours and needed more money to finish. Enraged, I regained my self control and told 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 was watching and translating, “My husband says you are a no good shit”

“I heard what he said! 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. He said 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 sobbing before I finished.

He turned his back and charged down the stairs. Rosa said I had hurt his feelings and followed him. 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 when my parents would arrive was now on a three day count down.

A few minutes later, he trudged up the stairs with Rosa. “Okay, señor, $1,000.”

“Do you swear, do you swear on a Bible and on your mother’s grave…” I 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 Saturday evening, at the latest? Do you swear?”

He nodded, yes.

I breathed a deep sigh and wrote him a check for $1,000. At last, we seemed to be getting somewhere.

Day Seven. Friday. I fixed breakfast and went downstairs to see what was going on. Rosa said that José had torn up the check, stormed out and would not paint until he was paid in full in cash. I explained that I could only take out $500 a day from the ATM, which was the policy at that time. He then appeared and said he was not doing anything without the cash. I exploded and told him it was $500 in two installments or nothing, and that he had to be out of the house in 24 hours. He consulted with Rosa and reluctantly agreed. We both went to the ATM around the corner and I took out all I was allowed to and would get him the balance the next day. That afternoon he returned with a friend and they started to paint.Two days until the nuclear event.

Day Eight. Saturday. Jose and his friend, who seemed to know how to paint, finished the job around two in the afternoon, cleaned up the bedroom, took their belongings and were out of the house by five pm, paid in full and broadly smiling. A miracle, to be sure! I sat on our front porch in relieved disbelief. How could I be so lucky? All the agony, yet they were gone. Our cat and dog cautiously returned from their hiding places in the attic. 

Day Nine. Sunday. Embry and Jessica returned from their California trip at noon. Andrew, hearing the news that the coast was clear, returned at three. I gave them a briefing of my eight days in hell. They listened wide-eyed with great interest as I described every incident, smiling, and summing it all up that at last everything was back to normal and all was good in the world.

But was it? Where were the Chavez headed? Did they have another place to stay? The family did have a thousand dollars, but how far would that get them? And what did the future look like for this family? What about  their three–soon to be four–children? Well, I thought, whatever happened was not on my watch anymore. I do not recall a time in my life I ever felt more relieved.

Day Ten. Monday.  My parents arrived in a cab at noon from their flight from Nashville. After the hugs, they asked how everyone was doing and if there was any news. “Oh, no news to report.” I replied, smiling painfully and breathing a long sigh of relief. Over the course of the week, however, I did fess up, telling them about the Chavez family as they listened with painful looks of disbelief, realizing how close they had come to what I have referred to as a nuclear event. They had dodged a bullet, albeit barely. 

While all was well with the Howell family, all did  not turn out well with the Chavez family,  and what happened next  will be the subject of the  next post.


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