Every day, a bunch of men chain-smoking and gossiping on the front porch of a large row house near the Safeway on Columbia Road caught my eye as I walked from the Woodley Park Metro to my home in Adams Morgan. Often their conversation was boisterous and lively, but on other days they sat in silence. Sometimes a young man would struggle to mount the steps to the porch, balancing himself with a cane, while a much older and healthier-looking man worked in the yard, pulling weeds or mowing the lawn. I wondered who these men were.
The answer came in the summer of 2000, when I knocked on the front door to introduce myself as a neighbor. The woman who answered invited me in to a dinner of fried fish and collard greens. It was then that I first met Anthonya feisty 31-year-old resident of Joseph’s House, a home and hospice that since 1990 has provided palliative and end-of-life care to formerly homeless D.C. men dying of AIDS. Anthony was the first person I knew with AIDS.
With Anthony as my guide, I soon established myself as a regular on the front porch, where I chewed the fat with the Joseph’s House residents. I met Frank, the resident I had spotted earlier in the garden, and Rob, a former chef at a Capitol Hill pub who mourned his recent loss of appetite. Their turn-of-the-century row house, complete with original hardwood floors and fireplaces, was far from my image of a hospice. When residents and staff came together for meals at the 10-foot-long dining room table, they laughed and argued just as any family would.
But the composition of the family was constantly changing. My original link to Joseph’s House, Anthony, passed away a year and a half after we met.
As the men warmed to me, I began to bring my camera. Encouraged by both residents and staff, my informal photo shoots evolved into a long-term documentary project and ultimately a change in my own career. In March 2002, I enrolled in a certified-nursing-assistant program, and a few months later I began working as a full-time caregiver at Joseph’s House. In January 2003, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities awarded me a grant that enabled me to turn more attention to the photo project.
Once I began interacting with the men at Joseph’s House 40 hours a week, I became sensitive to the drastic changes in their health from one day to the next. Hope for a better life coexisting with fear of imminent death generated an electric atmosphere in the house.
One Sunday morning, we had a special brunch. One of the residents, Harold, had received good news from the doctor that his viral load was down and his immune system was strong, so we decided to celebrate with pancakes, waffles, eggs, bacon…the works. One of the other guys tuned the radio to a gospel station and cranked up the volume. At that instant, the intercom sounded, calling me upstairs to Jim’s room, where my colleague informed me that he had just died. We bathed his body, lit a candle, and called the nurse and funeral parlor.
By the time they came for Jim’s body, the food was cleared away, but the men remained at the table. I grabbed one end of the body bag and helped carry Jim’s body downstairs, past the dining room and out the front door to the waiting van. The gospel brunch rumbled on with its “amen”s and “hallelujah”s.
When I returned, I looked in at Harold, the guest of honor, and remembered how scared we all had been when he had slipped into a coma a few months earlier. It became clear to me that at brunch that morning, the men had learned to celebrate both living and dying. Yet I knew that each of them, including Harold, was wondering, Am I going to walk out of Joseph’s Houseor be carried out? A few months later, Harold was one of the ones who got to walk out.
Many of the men who enter Joseph’s House as hospice patients experience a resurgence of health. Finding themselves in a stable environmenteating three meals a day, sleeping in a comfortable bedthey rebound. Escaping the street, they build a more stable community. Forging relationships with staff members and fellow residents, they can more easily fend off drugs and follow their daily regimen of AIDS medication. They regain weight, the ability to walk, contact with loved ones, and their senses of humor.
Recently, David, a current resident of the house, found himself caring for an older man who moved in at the end of the summer. “The day Bruce came, I just really knew that I was eventually going to get him on his feet,” he said one day not long after Bruce’s arrival. “When he told me about his involvement back in the days of the Stonewall riots, we just clicked.” The following day, David brought lunch to Bruce in his room. “He wasn’t swallowing so good, so I thought I’d give him Jell-O. But I brought a half a sandwich, just in case.”
While his own good health allowed him to focus on Bruce, David remembered what it had felt like when he was the guy needing help. “I admit I was jealous of the guys who could run around the corner to the Safeway whenever they wanted to. It’s really great that a person is getting up and out of the house,” he said. “But when you’re stuck in a wheelchair, you feel all kinds of shit. In my first couple of months at the house, that really added to my depression.”
Within weeks of meeting David, Bruce took a turn for the worse and died. “You never become immune to the pain,” said David, shaking his head. “You learn how to live with it. At least I do.”
Previously, David had chosen to stay in his room during the few memorial services that had taken place since he’d come to Joseph’s House. But, realizing the importance of eulogizing Bruce, he changed his pattern. “You have to show that these guys are remembered,” he said. “I want people to do it for me.”
All the residents benefit from at least one unexpected, albeit double-edged, advantage: bearing witness, over and over again, to each unique experience of regaining healthor dying.
Recently I met Harold for a lunch of burgers and fries at the Diner, just a couple of blocks from the hospice. This time there was no gospel music. He reminisced about one of his Joseph’s House friends who had died. “He had good willpower and strength. And you have to have it in order to deal with dying,” he said. “I give him the utmost respect about how he left….I’m glad to know that there is strength out there like thatthat you can prepare yourself to be ready to go out.”CP
Dennis* had the manners of a Southern
gentleman. In November 2002, when complications from his disease became too much to handle, he came to Joseph’s House. He was still very capable of getting around with his cane when he first arrived. The U Street corridor was his favorite place to hang out. He would inevitably return to the house with a bucket of Popeyes fried chicken.
Dennis was a quiet guy who kept to himself, but he had a way of making his presence known. Whenever he returned home from one of his hospital stays, the sound of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell would flow from the CD player in his second-floor bedroom. I’d knock on his door to deliver his cup of crushed ice and inevitably find him tidying his room. It always smelled crisp and clean.
One night I was packing a bag for him to take to the hospital and reached into a laundry basket next to his bed that had a pile of neatly folded clothes in it.
“Do you want your Redskins sweatshirt or the blue one?” I asked.
“Those are my dirty clothes,” he replied. “Check my dresser.”
Dennis was the first person I’d ever known who folded his dirty clothes. He was that meticulous. He died this past spring.
* Not his real name.
Chuck changed the dynamic of Joseph’s House when he arrived, in December 2002. At 24, he was the youngest resident we had ever welcomed into the community. Despite the attention that his mother and grandmother had provided him at home, his condition had progressed to the point that he needed a greater degree of care.
Chuck was a man of few words. When I would come in to work at 4 p.m., I would often find him parked in his wheelchair in the dining room, his head down on the table, cradled in his folded arms. His mother and grandmother would come and pass time with him despite how difficult it was. They would sit right next to him and sometimes assume the same position. Of course, if they showed up with his favorite snack, KFC macaroni and cheese, his head would slowly lift from the table.
On Feb. 21, we took Chuck to see a Wizards game. He had been looking forward to returning to the MCI Center, where he had worked selling hot dogs and pretzels before becoming ill. We had picked the right game. Michael Jordan scored 43 points, leading the Wizards to an 89-86 victory over the New Jersey Nets.
During halftime, as I wheeled him in his chair through the arena’s hallways, Chuck called out to old friends behind the counters, who loaded him up with free Cracker Jacks and chicken wings. A month later, Chuck passed away.
Frank entered Joseph’s House in January 1995 and was, by the time I met him there in 2000, the leader of the pack. He was the senior member of the house in both age and years of residency. “I’ve gained a lot of friends in the years I’ve lived here,” Frank told me. “But that’s been hard. When they deceased, I took it pretty hard.” He had seen more than a hundred men pass away in his years at the house.
Early in his tenure, Frank took on the responsibility of keeping the grounds in order. The lawn and flower gardens were his pride and joy. Hidden in a copse of trees at the corner of the property was a statue of the Virgin Mary. On three different occasions, the statue was stolen in the night. Each and every time, Frank arranged for a replacement and plotted a new strategy to thwart the Virgin thief.
Everyone knew Frank. Nine times out of 10, if the phone rang or a knock came at the door, it was for him. Often it was his friend Jim, his golf partner. Other times, his daughter and grandson would come and take him shopping. He needed what it took to look and smell good. The windowsill of his bedroom was cluttered with bottles of cologne. On Sundays, he would head to church wearing polished shoes, a suit and tie, and one of his classic hats.
Frank was a man of habit. It had become a tradition that when a member of the house passed away, Frank would read the 23rd Psalm at the memorial service. I remember one service that took place when Frank was in the hospital. Halfway through, the phone rang. When I answered, there he was, ready to perform his reading via speakerphone. When Frank died in August, at 65, one of the nursing assistants stood in the living room and read the 23rd Psalm for Frank.
Andre was 39 when he left the homeless shelter on 2nd and D Streets and was admitted to D.C. General Hospital for pneumonia. Shortly after, he transferred to Joseph’s House, where he managed to get back on his feet over a four-month period.
A year and a half later, Andre had enrolled in a vocational rehab program that was training him as a barber. For weeks, he had been practicing and earning a few bucks going around to all the city shelters and offering discount haircuts. Then Andre came back to the house for a visit and to test his barbering skills on a current resident in need of a trim. When he finished, we took up our old positions on the front porch and I asked him what it was like in the months after he left in 2002:
“When I first moved out, I didn’t have nobody to lean on,” he said. “No crutch. My family was there, but they weren’t, ’cause everyone was into their own thing. So I had to try and fit myself back in,” he recalled. “I relapsed a little bit. I came back. I relapsed again. I came back. Until I said, Look here, man, I gotta do this for Andre. I got to do this for me.”
Harold came to Joseph’s House in July 2002. Many times, he grew very ill and came quite close to dying, only to rebound and grasp life one more time. This cycle repeated itself over and over.
He’s an engaging man whose soft demeanor belies the numerous scars scattered across his fragile bodysouvenirs of bullet and knife wounds collected during his days in the streets and in prison.
Miraculously, Harold was able to leave Joseph’s House in November 2002 to live in his mother’s house, where he is pictured. He recently talked about his transition back to health and life outside of Joseph’s House:
“At some point, I realized that there was hope for me to come out of this back on top. And I may never be 100 percent, but I came out functioning and able to deal with society again and do the things I want to do before I do leave. I realized there were a lot of things I didn’t do that I wanted to do: spend a lot of time with my family and my new grandbaby, express my feelings towards my kids and my nephew Michael. I had to put a lot of things out of my life in order to deal with life again….As far as my street life, the drugginga whole lot of druggingdestroying my system…The fact that they can’t detect my disease anymore is an inspiration, ’cause I’m doing the right thing. But I gotta constantly maintain….I’m adapting to my new life again. I can go out here and do just about what the eight-hour-a-day man can do. Maybe not as much, but I can fill some of his shoes.”
In September 2001, Ted began his year-and-a-half stay at Joseph’s House, where he slowly got well. At 31, Ted was a live wire who would incite both fits of laughter and heated argument throughout the house. During his stay at the hospice, he started to attend the day program at the Whitman-Walker Austin Center, in which HIV-positive men and women work to build support networks and develop the skills necessary to direct their own lives.
If regaining his health had seemed like an insurmountable task, Ted faced an equal challenge in maintaining it upon leaving the house, in the spring of 2002. At first the situation seemed promising. He moved in with a friend and got a job at an IHOP. But soon things fell apart. The friend was busted for dealing crack, and Ted landed on the street again.
He brought me up to date recently as we sat facing the White House on a bench in Lafayette Square:
“I’m stayin’ over on K Street at the park now. I got my blanket. But during the day, I still go to the Austin Center. It’s just like a job to me. I go every day. I go to my drug and HIV meetings, ’cause I relapsed again about a month ago. It’s harder keeping clean out here, ’cause it’s all around you. But now I have my friend Marcus, and he’s basically keeping me positive about everythingmaking me keep my head up. And my doctor told me last week that my CD4 count and viral load are excellent. So far, so good.”
In October 2002, Darryl arrived at Joseph’s House in bad shape. His doctor had told him that he wouldn’t live to the end of the year. He was 41 years old, weighed 91 pounds, and was bound to a wheelchair because of a significant leg wound resulting from his struggle with heroin addiction.
Darryl is one of those men who, faced with his mortality, still has it in him to fight. On his second day in the house, he said to me, “Jesus has saved me so many times. So many times. I know I am here for a purpose…that there is a reason for still being here. And I think I’m going to find it in this house.”
Darryl regained his appetite. Chris, an AmeriCorps volunteer assigned to the house, would make a daily run to the corner store to refill Darryl’s stock of Little Debbie brownies.
In early 2003, Darryl took on the responsibility of dressing his own wounds after being trained by Joseph’s House staff. Soon he was able to walk. His three sons, with whom he hadn’t been in touch for over a year, began to visit.
Four days shy of a year in the house and weighing 170 pounds, Darryl left and moved in with his mother.
I visited him at her home a few weeks ago. “Now that I’m out of Joseph’s House, a lot changed,” he said. “A lot. I don’t have the spark in me no more like I did there. For real. I stopped going to meetings. I just ain’t had no get-up-and-go.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Shawn Davis.