Dania Matos
Dania Matos Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Dania Matos was a teenager growing up in New Jersey when the sheriff came to her family’s front door and explained that they would have to vacate the premises immediately. Matos saw distress on her mother’s face, and promptly began to bargain with the officer. She spilled out their story—she had a younger brother and sister in school, and her mom was dealing with the aftermath of a divorce.

“That sheriff could have easily dismissed me,” she says. “But he looked me in my eye and said, ‘OK, I’m going to give you a few hours’ in one of the worst situations ever. That meant a lot. So I try to pay that forward every day,” Matos says.

Two decades later, Matos still is. In fact, her commitment has grown over time.

On June 16, her 36th birthday, she eschewed the traditional birthday niceties and instead planned an evening handing out packages to homeless people in downtown Washington. She called it “Dania’s Birthday of Service” and asked all who were willing to help to donate gently used clothing, prepackaged foods, hand sanitizer, bottled water, and other necessities. She also assembled a group of people to help bundle the items and distribute them.

The response was overwhelming.

“I keep getting all these Amazon packages at home, and it feels like it’s my birthday every single time. And then I open it, and it’s like 50 body washes!” Matos said a day before the event. Her routine consisted of taking pictures of the donations and then posting them on social media, publicly thanking the benefactors.

Party-goers met at the expected birthday hour—Friday evening at 8—and carpooled from Alexandria to D.C. The rain began falling as they pulled into the city. Umbrellas in hand, the 15 attendees split into groups and made their way to places where homeless people unfurl their bedrolls each night—Lafayette Park, Franklin Square Park, McPherson Square, and finally Union Station. As the rain came down, Matos and her friends distributed their gifts to the homeless and made conversation as they went. In a few cases they bowed heads, held hands, and prayed with the recipients.

To organize the event, Matos enlisted the help of Sarah Frye, a friend from her church who regularly organizes homeless outreach and with whom she’s been attending Alexandria’s Metro Church for about two years. 

“We go making sure that we’re respectful of it being their space and their home,” says Frye. “If they’re lying down asleep or whatever, we treat it as their space, and we enter it with great respect and humility,” Frye says. 

Matos has been volunteering in shelters since 2005, including working as a Spanish and French-to-English translator and serving food around Thanksgiving. When she started doing homeless outreach, she was surprised at how much those she met simply wanted to talk. “People just walk by them; people just can’t be bothered,” she says. “So when I do the outreach, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, someone I can talk to that’s actually going to listen and make me feel validated and human.’”

Over the years she has persuaded her mother and younger brother to participate on occasion. “They love it when my mom comes because she makes them yummy Puerto Rican food,” she says.

Her brother, Guillermo Ortiz, also came out for the birthday party. When he presented an older woman with a poncho that night, she appreciatively remarked on how she would use it for warmth. “In that moment, I really understood how much I take for granted,” Ortiz says. “I’m thinking, ‘I just want to keep you dry.’ But she’s thinking, ‘This is another layer to keep me from freezing at night.’” 

Leslie Roseboro, 55, was another of the homeless people that Matos’ group met. When Roseboro learned that Matos and many of the others live in Alexandria, he commented on the recent shooting of GOP House Majority Whip Steve Scalise. Well versed in the details, he expressed disappointment over the incident and spoke about the lack of news coverage on the officers shot in the melee.

“A black brother and black sister was shot, too!” Roseboro said, referring to Capitol Police officers Crystal Griner and David Bailey, who suffered injuries while protecting the congressman. Quickly changing topics, he also rattled off his thoughts on the use of the N-word, saying it’s time for fellow black men “to leave that word alone.” Roseboro says he’s been on the streets off and on for 17 years, and that his mental issues have contributed to his homelessness.

The volunteers also met Hayward Tisdale, 64. Standing under a partially enclosed bus stop to beat the rain, he was noticeably grateful to receive his care package. He said his homelessness was caused by a prison conviction and an unyielding addiction to drugs. “The drugs had control of me so bad, one time I stole two rims off a car right in front of the White House.” He says he was promised drugs in exchange for the car parts.

“But now, I’ve been sober for 13 months,” he said proudly.

He says he has a warm place he can go, but because drug use is frequent there, he tries to avoid it. Now approaching 65, he says he’ll soon be eligible to receive financial assistance.

When Matos and her family were evicted in the late 1990s, they managed to avoid the streets. Since it was their second displacement in a row, they didn’t have much to pack. What they couldn’t fit into their temporary storage unit, they stuffed in the family car and a moving van. With the help of cousins, they were out of the apartment that same day.

Her aunt had access to a timeshare property in the Poconos, and the family was able to move there for three weeks. They commuted from Pennsylvania to New Jersey for school—more than a two-hour drive each way. “Even in the homelessness we experienced, we were privileged,” says Matos, adding that as a Latina, it is ironic to speak of privileges. “A lot of people don’t think about privilege in homelessness. Yet we had a roof over our heads.”

Ortiz is 25 now but was in middle school at the time. He remembers his mother being composed and downplaying the move. “She said, ‘This is going to be temporary, and we’re going to bounce back and figure it out,’” he recalls. “And I was like, ‘It’s OK, she’s my mom, she’s got this. She’s always had this.’”  

His mom told him to think of it as a vacation. “She wanted to try to preserve as much innocence in us as possible.” Ortiz says. “But at the same time, I knew something was wrong because we were making that commute with all our stuff in the back of the car,” he says. 

As adults, he and sister are making lemonade out of their fuzzy childhood memories. 

“Homelessness is a circumstance,” says Matos. “It’s not who they are.”