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At a house where the homeless go to die, she has been a constant for nearly 30 years. Now, she is saying goodbye.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/20/2019 Theresa Vargas
a person lying on a bed © Provided by WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post

It is the plainest of wooden tables, the kind you probably wouldn’t examine closely unless you spilled something on it.

And yet, it seems the only fitting place to start Patty Wudel’s story.

The first time she sat at that table was on a Sunday in 1990. She had met a young black man named Ron at church, and after they talked for a bit, he asked her, “Would you like to meet my family?”

She told him she would, figuring they would walk to a nearby McDonald’s and he would introduce her — this white woman he barely knew — to his partner and kids.

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He led her instead to a house in Northwest Washington, where the door was unlocked and the smell of eggs, ham and coffee pulled them toward the dining room. There, she saw the table topped with food and the chairs around it filled with mostly African American men. Some looked healthy. Some did not.

Wudel joined them for breakfast, and while they talked and laughed, she watched a strong-looking man feed a frail-looking man in a wheelchair.

“I’ve never forgotten that,” she said recently. “In feeding him, that man in the wheelchair had his place at the table. He held his place for him. It matters that we hold each other’s places when a person can’t hold their own.”

After breakfast, she said, Ron told her more about those men and himself.

“I don’t know if you know where you are,” she recalled him saying. “It’s Joseph’s House. It’s a house for homeless men with AIDS. I live here.”

“The way he said it with ease and pride and welcome, no hiding, no shame, no fear, I just fell in love with Joseph’s House,” Wudel said. “Ron died shortly after that, as people did in those days. But by that time, I had thought of a reason practically every day to come back, so I kind of had a sense of my own place at the table. I wanted to belong to these people, with these people. I wanted these people at the table to be my people.”

At the time, Wudel had only lived in D.C. for a few years, but she had noticed how the AIDS epidemic had divided people, and she had asked herself, “Whose side are you on?”

“For me, it was a part of justice,” she said. “It still is.”

At the time, much remained unknown about HIV and AIDS. The red ribbon hadn’t yet become an international symbol of awareness. People living with the virus were banned from entering the country. And in D.C., those dying from it saw friends and relatives hesitate to touch them.

“I wish I could tell you about Peewee in his hugeness. He had so much integrity,” Wudel said. “I remember him telling me how his mother would send one of the kids in the neighborhood around to the abandoned car where Peewee was sleeping to hand him a hamburger through the window. She couldn’t get any closer to her son than that.”

Ron. Peewee. Wudel’s memories are crowded with the first names of people who are no longer alive.

In the 29 years she has spent at Joseph’s House, she has witnessed hundreds of D.C. residents who have not always had a bed get one toward the end of their lives. She has shared meals with them, held their hands when they could barely move and mourned them once they were gone.

She has also witnessed the population at Joseph’s House change. It used to be the house where the homeless went to die. It is still that for many, but is also now a place where some get better. Some move out and get apartments. One woman had a baby. Many of the people who now go to Joseph’s House have HIV, but they are there because they also have cancer.

I first visited Joseph’s House 10 years ago. I spent weeks there, observing interactions and talking to people, for an article. During that time, a resident named Robert Wylie died on the living room sofa in the arms of a volunteer. I remember not feeling surprised at all that he went so gently.

The house fosters a sense of community. Framed photos of residents, past and present, cover the walls downstairs, and the staff focuses on helping people live as much as die.

In that first article, I described the atmosphere in this way: “Here in Joseph’s House, it is not unusual for death to play out in one room while life defiantly goes on in another. At the dining room table, the healthy pass biscuits to the unhealthy, and frail, slow hands clear place mats so that young, able ones won’t have to. People die and then cookies are baked.”

I went back recently to talk to Wudel, knowing I soon wouldn’t have that chance. On July 31, she will hand over her title as executive director to Kowshara Thomas, a nurse at the house, and drive toward Western Canada to take care of her 95-year-old mother.

“It’s so hard,” Wudel said of leaving. There is loss at the house, but there is also so much more, she said. “There is also great love and joy and honesty and grown-upness. There’s intimacy.”

She described one moment as life-changing for her. She was still just a visitor at the house, working for an international telecommunications organization, when a nurse asked if she wanted to move in and help with the night shift. She did, and soon after, fell into a routine with a resident named Hugh, who was afraid to fall asleep.

Wudel would make two bowls of ice cream and they would spend their evenings sitting on his bed, eating and watching Westerns. Then one night, she started to nod off and he suggested she lay down. She put her head on his pillow.

“The next thing I know, I woke up to his deep breathing, his snoring,” she said. “He was asleep. He was asleep because I was there. I’m nobody special. I’m not a psychologist. I’m not a nurse. And I could make that difference for him. We don’t have to be so special to make a difference in a way that really matters to someone.”

On the recent afternoon I visited her, one former resident and a man who hopes to move into the house stood in the dining room, their arms around Wudel.

“I’m Patty’s child she don’t know about,” Curtis Harrison, 56, joked.

“But I’m her first born,” KC Lee Lang Sr., 60, said.

Lang told Wudel he was going to miss her “100 percent.” He lived in the house in 2016.

“I was in a place I didn’t want to be, and I was saved by this lady,” he said. “This is my family. We’re family here.”

A few feet away stood the same table Wudel sat at nearly 30 years earlier.

She eats breakfast and dinner there with the residents most days. In recent years, it has also become a meeting place for two groups to discuss race on the second Saturday of each month. That grew out of a moment six years earlier, when Wudel expressed surprise that the death of Trayvon Martin ended with an acquittal. She said a black nurse named Blossom Williams stood next to her and, with tears on her face, whispered, “I always knew it would.”

“The difference between her response and mine went so deeply into my consciousness,” Wudel said. “I was just so struck by how unaware I was of race and racism in America all those years here at Joseph’s House.”

That day, the table held 10 place settings and large bowls filled with vegetables and stir-fried noodles. Music played as people filled plates and passed pitchers of bright colored drinks.

Wudel took a seat in the middle, and shared one more meal with her family.

theresa.vargas@washpost.com

Read more by Theresa Vargas:

‘I’m tired of feeling weak’: A powerful collection of children’s essays about violence now sits in the Library of Congress

‘This is my do-over’: She used to sleep on the streets. Now, she helps others who do.

Making up for birthday parties that were never had, group gives older foster kids a chance to celebrate

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