by John Kelly, columnist
The Washington Post
December 30, 2014
For Matthew Davis, one of the hardest things about living in a homeless shelter was giving up his knives.
“You feel naked,” he said. “A real cook always got his own tools. I always tell them: You ain’t got no tools, you ain’t a real cook.”
With 20 years of professional kitchen experience, Matthew, 56, is a real cook. But that couldn’t prevent his slide into homelessness after moving from New England to the Washington area in 2012. Work dried up, and he and his 10-year-old daughter, Cheryll, had to move into the family shelter at D.C. General. Knives aren’t allowed in the residents’ rooms, so they were locked up.
Matthew and his daughter were at D.C. General for 10 weeks before entering a rapid rehousing program run by Community of Hope, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand.
Community of Hope does more than find housing. It also has a team of employment specialists to help clients navigate the job search process.
“Helping someone write a résumé is one of my favorite things,” said Lydette Assefa, adult education and employment coordinator at Community of Hope. “They walk away with this piece of paper telling their story but also with this greater realization: Wow, I can do all of these things that are articulated here.”
Said Sheldon Good, an employment and community outreach specialist, “I’ve had clients walk away misty-eyed.”
Matthew was a truck driver before an eye injury forced a career change. Luckily, when he was a boy, his mother — a South Carolina native — taught him cooking basics.
“My mother had five boys before she had a girl,” he said. “Her philosophy was, ‘I taught y’all to cook so when you get older you won’t have to depend on no woman.’ But it was a good thing.”
While working as a dishwasher at a hotel, Matthew approached the chef with a request: Teach me to do what you do.
“He taught me to use knives, how to do recipes, learn my temperatures,” he said.
Matthew turned in his scrub brush and became a prep cook. “From a prep cook I became a lead cook,” he said. “From a lead cook to a banquet cook. From banquet cook I became a banquet chef. I’ve been sous chef, head chef, cafe supervisor. I’ve done a lot in the kitchen.”
Washington was a tough nut to crack, however. Matthew had been here only a few months when his housing situation fell apart. His search for a full-time job was futile, too.
“I even went to a McDonald’s,” he said. “I think that was a mistake, telling them my experience.”
They told Matthew that he was overqualified and would want more money than McDonald’s could pay.
“I was like: ‘I don’t care what you pay me. I just want a job.’ ”
When Matthew and his daughter moved from D.C. General to a partially subsidized apartment, Sheldon became his partner.
“We first started in mid-August,” Sheldon said. “We met consistently through September and October, and he worked on updating his résumé.”
Sheldon is constantly combing sources for job leads. He reaches out to employers who have a social justice bent, such as Andy Shallal at Busboys and Poets. He reads business news and scours blogs that cover up-and-coming neighborhoods, such as Urban Turf and JDLand.com.
“I’ll also just literally walk around,” Sheldon said. “That’s how I noticed Willie’s.”
Willie’s Brew & Que is a new barbecue smokehouse in the Navy Yard neighborhood run by Rock Harper, a “Hell’s Kitchen” winner. Matthew landed a cook job there in October. He’d like to work even more hours.
“Give me a job that’s going to pay at least $700 or $800 a week,” he said. “That would be my dream.”
“Everybody falls into situations,” Matthew told me. “No matter who we are, we have bad times — hard times — sometimes.”
That’s why Community of Hope is so important.
I’m hoping to raise $200,000 for our three charities — Community of Hope, Sasha Bruce Youthwork and Homestretch — by Jan. 8, when the campaign ends. Frankly, I’ve been a little worried. But we just received some great news: Our total so far is $128,667.30. It’s possible we can reach our goal.
But time is tight. If you’re hoping to take a tax deduction this year, please give now. You can make a contribution by visiting www.posthelpinghand.
com and clicking where it says “Donate to Community of Hope.”
To give by mail, send a check payable to Community of Hope to: Community of Hope, Attn: Helping Hand, 4 Atlantic St. SW, Washington, D.C. 20032.
This article first appeared in The Washington Post on December 30, 2014.