Story and photos by Susan Hale Thomas
As afternoon sunlight spills through unwashed windows, warming Mike Davis’ second-story room, the thin 56-year-old stretches across the rumpled bed and sorts through a pile of paper for a blank piece. An old phone book serves as his desk.
“Dear Sir or Ma’am,” Davis begins writing, later ending with, “Thank you very much. I really appreciate your kindness in these matters.”
Writing letters has become a weekly routine. Most go to companies asking for help for his friends on the streets, though many go unanswered. The majority of businesses that respond say they only can donate to a nonprofit.
But one responded: The Sportsman’s Guide in Minnesota has twice sent boxes of woolen blankets, hats, gloves and meals ready to eat. These are the things that can make life on the streets bearable.
Davis knows this first hand. He has been homeless many times before.
Born in Alexandria, Davis — a weathered man who could pass as a Willie Nelson lookalike — grew up on the 900 block of Duke St. and attended St. Mary’s Catholic School in Old Town as a young boy. His grandmother worked at the Torpedo Factory during World War II; her picture still hangs there today.
Davis serves as a deacon at Commonwealth Baptist Church in Rosemont, where he’s attended services for the past 10 years. He has a network of friends there who help him as they can.
“He really hates to ask for things for himself and really just always nags us to help others,” said Donna Walker James, a friend and fellow parishioner. “Mike is good at determining what services he is eligible for and seeking these out on his own. ... He's also good at helping others navigate the system.”
Self-reliance is a skill Davis developed from a young age.
He openly describes a harsh childhood that has left him with bitter memories. His father was a violent alcoholic. His mother fled, leaving him and five sisters behind.
Davis recalls — at age 10 — when social services took him and his sisters away and then split them up. One brother had already moved out. Three of his siblings went to their mother in West Virginia, while Davis and his two other sisters moved in with his aunt in Woodbridge.
But she was abusive as well, and Davis spent days locked in his room. He ran away a lot, staying with classmates and occasionally with a teacher.
In 1970, three years after splitting with his father, Davis headed across the country and stopped in Idaho. He knew no one in the state but enrolled himself in high school, found work painting houses and lived in a hotel room for $40 a week.
After graduation, homesickness brought him back to Alexandria. For a while, he lived with his grandmother. Then, at the age of 20, he married and had a daughter.
The marriage only lasted a year. And it wasn’t long before Davis eked out a living on Alexandria’s streets.
Davis, who kept busy refinishing furniture and painting houses, returned to live with his grandmother at first. But when she died in 1988, he was left without a home. So he asked an uncle for a place to stay — but was refused.
It was Davis’ first experience being homeless. He kept working but at times didn't have enough money for his bills, so he lived with friends in Del Ray and Landmark. Other times, he stayed in a shelter.
“I couldn’t afford high rents over the years working for minimum wage,” he said. “I worked at the old Howard Johnson’s on North Washington Street, in restaurants, as security. ... My first job was working with my father painting houses.”
Health problems popped up. Diagnosed with type-1 diabetes at age 35, Davis now has heart and lung conditions. He also has no teeth and could use a pair of glasses.
Despite his condition, Davis still wants to work. The illnesses have left him angry, but he enjoys refinishing furniture and doing small jobs as his health allows.
And he stays busy lobbying on behalf of Alexandria’s underclass, those still struggling to get by in a region where the area median income has skyrocketed to $103,500 in the past decade.
Davis routinely navigates his way through the alleys of Old Town, avoiding the busy streets because — in his words — he’s not much of a people person. He looks for folks who might need an emergency blanket or MRE.
As winter approaches, Davis expands his operation to include the woods off of Route 1 and the cheap hotels along the highway — both places that the homeless live. Earlier this month, with some transportation help, he dropped off a box of blankets and tents that he gathered from his last letter-writing campaign at Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church along Russell Road. The church serves many of the homeless in the area who come to the house of worship for support.
He does this all out of the ramshackle rental house that he calls home these days. Parishioners from his church helped him find the home through a volunteer. To passing pedestrians and motorists, the aged building — sandwiched between two well-kept row houses along North Patrick Street — barely stands out.
But closer inspection reveals that the house — which he moved into earlier this year — has been neglected. The siding is rotten, the roof leaky, and the ceilings and walls need repair.
On August 13, city code inspectors visited the home. They cited the owner with nine code violations and gave a deadline of September 30 for necessary repairs.
To date, none have been made.
He shares the house with a friend in her mid-30s who was on the streets as well. They pool their Social Security payments to pay the $850 monthly rent, but there’s little cash left for anything else.
For those barely making ends meet — like Davis and his roommate — there are local organizations that can help. ALIVE!, an Alexandria nonprofit, serves as the community’s largest private safety net for the area’s needy.
And Executive Director Ken Naser has seen an increase in requests for aid over the years.
“When the recession started, we had people who had been volunteering for us who ended up on the other side, in line to get groceries,” he said. “During the shutdown, we’ve had an increase in requests for assistance. People living paycheck to paycheck are very vulnerable.”
Many left waiting for delayed shutdown paychecks couldn’t make their rent or pay for groceries or utilities.
On average, ALIVE’s Last Saturday Food Distribution program provides 5 days worth of fresh produce and groceries to help feed 2,100 city residents through the end of the month when money is tight.
ALIVE! also runs a family emergency fund, distributing $260,000 annually. The majority of referrals come from city social workers and the remainder through local churches. Assistance is apportioned three times per month: on the first, 11th and 21st.
“By noon [on the allotted days], the funds are depleted,” Naser said.
He figures that the nonprofit is only meeting one out of three people in need and hopes to increase the budget by 10 percent over the next five years.
Ross Kane, the assistant rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Old Town, has seen a change in those seeking help through the Lazarus Ministry, an outreach program assisting those in crisis in the community.
“A lot of people we used to see, we don’t see anymore. They’ve been pushed out of Alexandria,” Kane said.
Those who have managed to find housing and stay in Alexandria are lucky. Affordable housing options are at a premium, and a few — as in Davis’ case — are in clear violation of city code.
Plywood covers missing windowpanes in Davis’ bedroom. An air-conditioning unit teeters on the windowsill. There’s a bare mattress on the floor covered by a paisley coverlet. A roach scurries down the wall toward a Tastykake pumpkin pie.
It is here that Davis writes his letters.
Above Davis’ bed are several 4-by-6-inch photographs affixed with blue painter’s tape: one of his daughter, who he hasn’t seen in years, and a few of his sisters, with whom he has lost contact. There’s also a note from someone reminding him to take his insulin, contact a caseworker regarding a dentist and call for an oxygen tank.
But Davis is thankful, especially as the temperatures drop outside. He knows what it’s like to sleep on the pavement.