At a D.C. homeless shelter, two men face their demons in freezing weather

Robert Vaughn, left, and LeNard Johnson sought shelter at Central Union Mission on one of the coldest nights in Washington this month. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
4 min

3 p.m.: 29º F

LeNard Johnson, 47, has a job interview. He’s an IT guy who’s worked for the federal government, he says, sometimes with a security clearance. But it’s been hard to find work even after spending hours scrolling ZipRecruiter. He needs this virtual interview, at 5 p.m., to go well.

He checks in at the homeless shelter, where he’ll change into a suit. The intake manager at the shelter — Central Union Mission, a 170-bed facility in a former school, knows Johnson and waves him through. Tonight, he has a spot in a dormitory with about a dozen other men.

Johnson has been at the shelter every night since he got off a waiting list around Thanksgiving. If he misses check-in, he risks losing his bed. The sun is setting, and the first snow in more than 700 days coats the ground.

On a freezing night in a city with nearly 5,000 homeless people, Johnson does not want to be where he found himself last fall during his first extended bout with homelessness — riding the Silver Line from end to end to get some sleep.

He has to stay housed.

He has to stay sober.

He has two kids.

Every liquor store is a temptation.

“I’m trying,” he says.

5 p.m.: 28º F

Robert Vaughn, 69, lines up for dinner at Central Union: Beef stew. Despite his labored breathing — Stage 3 emphysema — he’s jubilant. He says he’s been sober for 11 months, one of his longest stretches since he left home around 1967.

Central Union, founded in the 1880s to serve veterans of the Civil War, was a 14th Street landmark until about a decade ago, when it was replaced by boutique condos. Its current location — two blocks from Union Station and across the street from a luxury hotel — serves as a reminder of people in desperate straits who are stranded among policymakers, commuters and tourists at the foot of Capitol Hill.

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After years living in other D.C. shelters — “hellholes,” Vaughn says — he’s in a long-term recovery program at Central Union. He lives in a four-man suite on the shelter’s third floor, having graduated from the second-floor dormitory. He’s made amends with his four adult children and agreed to a no-fault divorce from his wife. He says he no longer smokes crack. He is no longer, in his telling, a “hurricane” ruining women’s lives.

“I used to live a different way,” he says. “Now, I’m doing all the things I was told to do years ago.”

7 p.m.: 27º F

Johnson and Vaughn report to Central Union’s chapel, separated from the cafeteria by a collapsible wall. Johnson reports that his job interview went well. He was told he’s at the “top of the shortlist.”

“I try to remain optimistic about any opportunity,” he says. “If not, depression sets in.”

Ahead of a nightly ritual — the reading of the shelter’s rules — a chaplain welcomes guests.

“You’re making it in this cold,” he says. “Thank Him for heat. Thank Him for shelter. Can we praise the Lord tonight?”

A nondenominational Christian service begins. The service’s leader — the Rev. Norman Thomas of the First Baptist Church of Glenarden, Md. — gives a sermon about names. Johnson scrolls a job website as he listens.

The names God gave His creations have power, Thomas says. Those who carry these names must live up to them. In the film “Black Panther,” he says, Prince T’Challa defeated a formidable enemy by invoking the power of his mighty name.

“What is your name?” Thomas asks. “What does your name mean for you?”

10 p.m.: 25º F

Ahead of lights out, Johnson and Vaughn report to a lobby on Central Union’s second floor. The men have volunteered for housekeeping duties.

Johnson monitors the line for mandatory showers, making sure no one goes over the seven-minute limit. Vaughn polices the dormitory “tub rooms,” where residents stow personal items in plastic containers.

Vaughn takes the elevator down to a small lobby crowded with chairs and a TV. A handful of sleeping mats cover the floor. These are for “hypothermia” visitors — men who cannot be turned away during a hypothermia alert even though the dormitory is full. In the semidark, they huddle in their coats with their bags surrounding them.

At 7 a.m., it’s time to figure out where to spend tomorrow.

The lights are on, but it’s still a cold world.