Does anyone disagree that there are really serious problems in the world? That people are suffering? That we should do all we can to help those who suffer? Well, I believe this, and I refuse to turn my back on the suffering of humanity.
Nothing illustrates this better than an experience which 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. She had already given them scarves and mittens but had concluded it was not enough. 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 minute’s walk from our house, where in the dark shadows I saw a young couple and three small children huddled next to the entrance of 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. But somehow I suspected he was not really telling the truth. 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, right? I could give them money, but that would be condescending and not long lasting. What they really needed 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 exactly 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 was 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. No one was dressed for the cold temperatures.
“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 that she was part Sioux and part Seminole and grew up in New Mexico. And they were very appreciative for the gloves, scarves, and 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 but that they were flat broke. José was hard to understand with his thick accent, but Rosa usually translated from broken English to understandable English. Oddly, she would repeat what I said in English, not Spanish.
Okay, I thought, we at least have a baseline number to work with. If I could give a painting job to José for $250, that would solve the 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 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 the room, and the $250 I negotiated with him was about the right number. Pretty fair deal—we would get a room painted, and his family would get shelter and a start on the road to employment. Was this a crafty move or what?
Day One started off extraordinarily well. Andrew, our seventeen-year-old son, and his thirteen-year-old sister, Jessica, were a bit puzzled to find a ragtag 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 my 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, 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 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 parked car blocking the driveway. 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 would ultimately result in tragic failure. Napoleon’s foray into Russia in the winter of 1812, resulting in his ultimate demise, comes to mind. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor may be another. The bogus weapons of mass destruction in Iraq another. 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 going on, the entire family was on our front porch, shivering and anxious to get in. “God bless, God bless,” said Rosa several times. The die 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 were to return to spend the week before Easter with us as was their custom. They had non refundable 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.
I escorted the homeless family to our basement where we had a spare guest bedroom.
That was the end of Day One. On Day Two, 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 was trying to find a way to escape. Jessica considered giving her all her savings from odd jobs. Both Embry and Jessica were very supportive and understanding of my situation. But they both were headed to sunny California. Their last words of encouragement were that they were sure I would be able to work it all out. I grimly headed back to the house.
The bedroom in the basement—which was also where my parents usually stayed–was where the homeless family slept; but when I got home, it was quite 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, slammed 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 Day One.
The next day I got up as early as possible, walked the dog, who had come out of hiding, and 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 , let me know. Until then I am moving in with Bronson.”
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 in the evening of Day Three around nine, anxious to see what work had been done to 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. 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 an animal had walked across the pan leaving small paw prints everywhere. This was actually a positive sign that our cat still alive since I had no idea where she was hiding. Well, I had to admit — José had gotten the message, he 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.
So on the morning of Day Four I admitted that I had a problem. The first step in any recovery program is to fess up, to realize your shortcomings, to take action. I also was aware that on or about Day Ten, 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 about this stuff, right? 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 in the District of Columbia, only for homeless single people. With some calls I did determine 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 described as something of a stop gap measure, not in the best of shape. That was putting it mildly. The building was rundown and decrepit—paint coming off the sides, a couple of broken windows, trash everywhere, graffiti. It might as well have been in Calcutta.
But at that time It looked like a splendid 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 half painted in its chaotic condition. His wife told me he had been looking for work all day so he could rent an apartment.
“José,” I replied, “Have you ever considered living in a homeless shelter? I understand that many are quite nice. In fact there is a very nice 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 room. A pleasant enough person 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. In fact I don’t even know what their last name is.”
“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 Indian, pregnant?”
“Three tiny kids?”
“Now hold on one minute. “ I turned to José. “José, what is your last name?”
After choking, I managed to whimper that it did seem to be the Chavez family after all. She told me not to feel too bad since I was something like the third or fourth family who had tried to bring them in. “Where do you live, 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 DC; and if there were, they would not take the Chavez family. They were black listed. Maybe I should try one of the neighboring 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, and Fairfax County was looking for business. 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 sound like a Fairfax County address. I told her it was in DC.
“Sorry, we only take homeless Fairfax County families. You must take them to a DC shelter. 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.”
Somehow that did not seem like a viable option.
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 invite them in.
“Bottom line, sir, they now own your house. We have the strongest tenant-favored laws in the nation; and if you invite someone in, they stay 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 on it, 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 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 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.
On Day Six, I awoke somewhat refreshed but with the somber realization that I had only four 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 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 said he was stopping work because he had not been paid. Not been paid? I had advanced him $250! True, he admitted, but he had worked more hours and needed more money to finish. Besides he said he had to earn more money to afford an apartment. I presumed the one I had advanced him the $250 to rent. Enraged, I regained my self control and told him I would pay him $12 an hour to finish up, no questions asked, just finish up and get out of the house.
Hearing that, he screamed, “$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, “He says you are a no good shit.”
“I heard what he said, Rosa,” I shouted, no longer able to maintain self control.
“Okay, forget the hourly rate. Let’s discuss how much money it will take for you to finish up the room and clean up everything.”
José calmed down and did some calculations in his head. After a long pause 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.
I am not sure how much he could understand, but he turned his back and charged down the stairs. Rosa commented that I had hurt his feelings. She followed after him. I sat at the top of the stairs, alone, with my head in my hands, feeling a little better that I had gotten it off my chest, though as a practical matter I knew I was still in deep trouble. The Nuclear Event was now in a three day countdown mode.
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 why I said this , but it sounded like it might mean something to him. “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?”
He nodded, yes.
Though still skeptical I managed to breathe a sigh of relief. At last, maybe we were getting somewhere. I reluctantly agreed to advance half the cash up front.
On Day Seven José was nowhere to be seen. Rosa said he was trying to find someone to help him. I felt another panic attack coming on. Nuclear Event minus two days.
On Day Eight the miracle occurred. José showed up early in the morning with a somewhat bedraggled friend who actually knew how to paint. In three hours the painting was finished, and in another two hours everything was more or less cleaned up. My clothes were not salvageable, but I figured it was a small price to pay for liberation. By five pm they were out of the house –all of them. De facto proof of a kind and merciful God active in the affairs of humankind.
At 5:15 pm the animals timidly descended the attic stairs and reclaimed the living room. At six Andrew returned, and at five the next day I picked up Embry and Jessica at Dulles Airport. We had been in regular contact during the ordeal, and they were astonished that the house appeared to be in fairly reasonable shape. The next day, as planned, I picked up my parents from National Airport. On the way home, my mother casually asked if there was any news and how everyone was doing.
“Oh fine,” I replied, “and we got our master bedroom painted. It looks pretty good.”
It would be asking too much to report that we never saw the Chavez family again. In a couple of weeks, they were on our front porch again, asking for work. Jessica saw them first and rushed down downstairs. I saw Andrew headed for me with presumed orders to tackle me if necessary. Jessica managed to steer them away, thanking them for their hard work but saying that we did not need any more painting again–ever. Of course, that did not stop them from trying; but after several more rejections by the children, they finally gave up.
A few weeks later I noticed a family begging outside the Metro station near my office downtown; and as I got closer, recognized the Chavez family. I made an abrupt U turn and headed for another station. Over the course of the next couple of months I must have seen them five or six times huddled at one corner or another. I always headed for opposite side of the street or turned around. I had no idea where they were living or how they were surviving.
Then toward the end of that period, a feature article appeared in the Style section of the Washington Post, with the title, “What Will Become of the Chavez family?” It was written by a child abuse advocate and came down pretty hard on José and Rosa, demanding that the government take the children away from their irresponsible parents. Embry called the writer and told her they had spent a week living with us and had not stolen anything and in their own way were trying to be good parents. She pointed out there were mental health and communication issues involved. Of course, Embry was in California during most of the week, but I had to admit, it could have been a lot worse. And in their own way, they did seem to be trying. It was clear to me that their interpretation of what was happening was very different from mine. And when the final deal was cut, they kept their side of the bargain.
But the writer had a point. What would become of the Chavez family and to their children? I never saw them again after the article came out and am sure that whatever happened was not good. Think about what it must be like to get your start in life in such a family situation. Those children—and there still are a whole lot like them in our country—were dealt a pretty poor hand. Their parents as children probably were dealt something similar.
Our country has come a long way since the early 1980s by providing more shelters and supportive services for the homeless. For a number of years I have served on the board of a nonprofit organization which builds and operates transitional housing for homeless families in Washington. That organization is making a difference. Some lives have changed dramatically. I have spent virtually my entire career in the development of affordable housing. A drop in the bucket, you might say, but better than building nuclear weapons. Overall our country is doing a lot better in addressing the issues of homelessness though, of course, there is still a long way to go.
Yet when at times I think about that cold St. Patrick’s Day in the early 1980s, I still wonder whatever happened to the Chavez family.