A Life Changed by Friendship Place
by John Kelly
When a veteran struggled with homelessness, Friendship Place offered help
After twice experiencing homelessness, Air Force veteran Alan Banks found help at Friendship Place, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand. With his own apartment — and his life in a better place — Banks joined the board of Friendship Place. Today, he is a community engagement associate at the nonprofit, sharing his story with others.
Alan Banks thought that if he kept moving, people wouldn’t know he didn’t have any place to go.
“I thought if I wasn’t sitting still, on a bench, it wouldn’t look like I was homeless,” Alan told me.
And so after losing his apartment in 2004 — the result of losing his job after struggling with his mental health — Alan set himself in motion. That winter, he started each day on the subway to Silver Spring. Then he walked back to downtown Washington. And then he did it all over again.
“I knew you shouldn’t sit still,” Alan said. “You can freeze to death in D.C.”
Alan grew up in Seat Pleasant, Md. After enlisting in the U.S. Air Force at age 17, he was stationed in Minot, N.D., where he guarded nuclear weapons.
“I enjoyed the command,” Alan said. “It was hard, but I enjoyed it — once you got used to 50 below.”
After the Air Force — and sporting a valuable top-secret security clearance — Alan worked different security jobs in Washington, at places such as the District’s Department of Corrections and the Justice Department. He was a licensed firearms instructor. He made good money, was married, had children.
The sudden death of Alan’s father affected him tremendously, triggering a mental health crisis.
“I was good at hiding my illness, especially from myself,” he said.
In the depths of depression and unable to work, Alan lost his job, his marriage, his apartment and contact with his family. He experienced homelessness for six years, over two different time periods. The second time was after he became a victim of crime, shot three times during a robbery.
“At that point — my body broken, angry with God — I gave up, and I planned my suicide,” Alan said. “But planning my death shook me. I didn’t want to die.”
Alan started receiving counseling at the Veterans Affairs hospital in the District. During his visits, he would check on the status of a VA housing voucher, something he had been seeking for two years. One day in 2010, Alan’s contact at VA put him in touch with a nonprofit called Friendship Place.
“Friendship Place got my name on Monday,” Alan said. “That Friday, I was in an apartment. I don’t know how they did it, I’m just glad they did it.”
Friendship Place was founded in 1991 as a response to increasing homelessness in Upper Northwest. People experiencing homelessness can learn about its programs at the charity’s drop-in center at 4713 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Among those programs is Veterans First, which last year served 602 veterans and their family members. Among the priorities at Friendship Place: helping clients find permanent supportive housing, such as the apartment where Alan lives in Northeast D.C.
Once settled, Alan started to give back. He served on the board of Friendship Place and now works there as a community engagement associate, sharing his story with community groups.
“One of the first things that happened when I started volunteering at Friendship Place is they gave me the keys to the office,” said Alan, 63. “You come into this feeling worthless — eating out of the trash, rats walking on you, people looking at you like you’re nothing — and to go somewhere and they say you have worth and here’s the keys. Your life is — whew — you have worth.”
I asked Alan about the misconceptions our society has about homelessness and the people experiencing it. One of them, he said, is the common complaint: “Why don’t they just go and get a job?”
Alan said that’s impossible to do when you’re in what he calls “homelessness survival mode.”
Said Alan: “You can’t plan how to get out of it. You plan to get to tomorrow. You just plan for the next day.”
When your thoughts are consumed by finding something to eat and finding a dry place to sleep, looking for a job is a luxury.
Alan has reconnected with his family. Last month, he visited his daughter in Seattle. Last week, he celebrated his son’s marriage.
“You can put in there: I danced,” he said. “And I haven’t danced in years.”
Friendship Place is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, our annual fundraising drive. To support its work with a donation — and to help people such as Alan Banks — visit posthelpinghand.com.
To give by mail, send a check to Friendship Place, 3655 Calvert St. NW, Washington, DC 20007.
An earlier version of this column incorrectly said Alan Banks was stationed in Minot, S.D. after joining the U.S. Air Force. Minot is in North Dakota.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.