News

The men of La Casa receive help in life, illness and death

Perspective by John Kelly
Columnist
November 27, 2023 at 3:37 p.m. EST

Everett George, division director of La Casa, an apartment building in Columbia Heights for men who were once homeless. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

The first time I spoke with Everett George, division director at a unique place in Columbia Heights called La Casa, he wasn’t actually at La Casa, an apartment building for men who once lived on the streets. I’d reached him on the phone at a nursing home in Hyattsville where he was visiting one of La Casa’s residents.

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“It doesn’t end outside the door,” George said of his job.

That’s because a door — a home — isn’t the only thing the 34 residents of La Casa need. They need help addressing the issues that contributed to their homelessness in the first place. And as they age, they need help navigating the journey all of us will make.

“Most of the participants don’t have family members,” George said. “The staff becomes the family members. If they’re in the hospital, we follow them.”

If a resident enters a nursing home or must receive hospice care, La Casa’s case managers are there, too.

“Another thing that is a high priority is that, because some participants don’t have family members and don’t have resources, when they pass away, no one claims the body,” George said. And so La Casa does.

La Casa is operated by Friendship Place, a District-based charity that combats homelessness in our area and is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand campaign. The seven-story building opened at 15th and Irving streets NW in 2014, a much-needed replacement for a set of run-down trailers that had provided overnight shelter for unhoused men, many of them immigrants from Latin America.

La Casa offers what’s called permanent supportive housing. When a resident moves in, he’s free to stay. It is an example of the housing-first model of tackling the issue of people who are unhoused.

“In the housing-first model, you house the person regardless of whatever barriers they have,” George said. “You start to provide the wraparound services to those barriers that you discover.”

An after-school club is a gesture of friendship for homeless families

Residents at La Casa are required to meet twice a month with their case manager. Many meet more often, especially if they have pressing issues with addiction or with their mental health. That’s important.

“For example, if a person is experiencing a severe mental health issue, it’s going to impede their ability to maintain their apartment,” George said. They may not be able to keep it — or themselves — clean.

Since starting at La Casa in May, George has invited representatives from the District’s Department of Behavioral Health to attend weekly meetings to make sure residents are connected to services if they need them. George has also set up a harm-reduction program aimed at educating residents who are abusing alcohol.Many of La Casa’s residents are dogged by day-to-day health issues.

“We’ve been able to connect some of them to a primary-care doctor,” George said. “We realized that 60 to 65 percent had no primary-care doctor. They were utilizing the emergency room.”

But some of them don’t want to go to a doctor.

“It’s a cultural issue,” George said. “Because of some of the experiences they’ve had, they don’t trust the system.”

Still, George is committed to reducing ambulance use.

“The campaign I’m on now is to get a volunteer — a retired doctor or nurse — that can come to the building to do blood pressure checks, glucose checks and make recommendations, so the guys can get the proper health care they need,” he said.

I recently checked back with George. This time, he was in his office at La Casa. The resident whom George had visited in Hyattsville had died, and his body is in the morgue in Baltimore. When it is released, La Casa will provide a final act of charity: The man will be buried in a donated grave, a final home for someone who long had none.

You can help
We’re in the middle of Helping Hand, The Post’s annual fundraising campaign. We’re grateful for our readers’ support.

To give online to Friendship Place, go to posthelpinghand.com. To donate by mail, send a check to Friendship Place, 4713 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20016. Thank you.

By John Kelly
John Kelly writes John Kelly’s Washington, a daily look at Washington’s less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section.

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