A Big Helping Of Christmas Compassion At Joseph's House

Joseph's House is a hospice in Washington, D.C., for people who don't have a home. Started in 1990, it's a spot where people with end-stage AIDS and cancer can come to receive food, shelter, medication and community. NPR's Rachel Martin checks in for the holidays.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One of the most remarkable breakfasts in Washington, D.C. is cooked and served every day inside an tall brick row house. It's not a restaurant. But it does have a sign outside which reads: Joseph's House.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Where's the syrup? I'll grab it. I thought it was hot.

MARTIN: It's a veritable feast, especially on Fridays.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oatmeal, regular bacon and turkey bacon and - did I say eggs?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And Friday's special, blueberry pancakes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Blueberry pancakes.

MARTIN: The food is good but it's really the people who gather at this big wooden dining room table that make this meal and this place exceptional. What do you want?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (unintelligible).

MARTIN: You need a fork.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah, fork.

MARTIN: Joseph's House opened in 1990. It's a hospice center for people who'd probably never be able to afford one - homeless people with end-stage AIDS or cancer. When we visit, most of the residents have made it down for breakfast but one man, a new patient here, is too sick to go to the table. Daniel Byers sits in the living room, his swollen legs propped up on the recliner. His speech is labored and he's breathing with help from an oxygen tank. May I ask what's wrong? What are you sick with?

DANIEL BYERS: Oh, man. I got hepatitis C. I got HIV and I got shot twice in my back.

MARTIN: What happened?

BYERS: You know, me and my son was coming out the Safeway. You know, some guys was arguing but, you know, I ain't pay them no mind. We're steady walking. And next thing I know start shooting. One bullet went in my back and came out my stomach. And other bullet. You can see in my stomach.

MARTIN: Yeah. Daniel lifts his sweatshirt a bit to show his hugely distended stomach. The second bullet, he says, stayed in. Byers says it was 2005 when he learned he had HIV and hepatitis C. Both diagnoses came on the same day.

BYERS: I went through a lot of changes when I found out, you know, I'm not going to lie. You know, I was on suicide status and everything. 'Cause I didn't think she would do that to me, you know.

MARTIN: He's talking about his long-term partner. He says she cheated on him and she had a bad drug habit.

BYERS: We been together, oh man, we was elementary school. We been together that long and I haven't seen her since then.

MARTIN: So, how are you doing now?

BYERS: I'm just taking it one day at a time, you know, because they told me I don't have too much longer to live. Whenever God ready for me to go, I'm gone.

MARTIN: What's it like here? What's it like being at Joseph's House these last few days?

BYERS: Oh, man. Since I been here, it's been just, I can't even find a word for it. It's - lot of love in here, man. It's they really, really care.

MAUREEN SAYLOR: How cold is it outside? Very cold? It's pretty cold.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yes, both blankets.

SAYLOR: Thanks.

MARTIN: Near the front door, a young volunteer is helping a patient in a wheelchair get bundled up to go outside for some fresh air.

SAYLOR: Definitely (unintelligible).

MARTIN: OK. The volunteer's name is Maureen Saylor. She's 22 years old and she volunteers here four days a week. She says her time here has changed her.

SAYLOR: I had never sat by someone's bedside before as they were preparing to take their last breath. So, that was obviously a very new experience for me.

MARTIN: You've done that now?

SAYLOR: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: Who was it, may I ask?

SAYLOR: Jose. I really know nothing about him other than his ethnicity and, you know, his age and I know he has a daughter. He had a red handkerchief. And these are the things that, you know, we know. And someone comes in the doors and you don't know if, you know, maybe they've had a history of drug use or maybe they've been incarcerated or maybe none of those things. But you just sort of welcome them and if you can get to know them, but sometimes you don't get to do that. So, it's just sort of - it's just compassion.

MARTIN: Have you learned anything about yourself or this kind of work that has surprised you?

SAYLOR: I've surprised myself in that I'm so OK with death, to talk about it. And to talk to someone about their own passing, you know, like what they're expecting, what they're feeling about it, all of those things, it's a step in someone's life.

PATTI WIDELL: This is our mantle in the dining room. And we live with the memories of folks who've recently died. This is Forest. He passed away several months ago. And Cathy. And actually our cat Romeo.

MARTIN: This is Patti Widell. She's the executive director at Joseph's House. She and I are standing in front of the fireplace in the dining room. On top of the mantle are cards with the names of residents who've passed away. Eventually, staff members put the cards in a gray box and every April...

WIDELL: We have a ceremony, a ritual, in the yard. We read aloud all the names once again and bury them actually, and that's a way we kind of begin spring and summer formally and honor the people who've passed away here over the past year.

MARTIN: That same mantle is also decked out with lights and red and green Christmas garland. And even though holidays here can be difficult - residents missing loved ones, remembering happier, healthier holidays past - there is a spirit of generosity and caring here that transcends a one-day holiday celebration. It is every day at Joseph's House.

WIDELL: We really work on keeping it feeling and looking like a home. Because so much can happen in a home that has to do with healing - at least of the heart - that just can't happen in the same way in an institution like a hospital.

MARTIN: On this day, at breakfast, that healing came in the form of a Christmas song, sung by a man named John Matthews.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: How about "White Christmas" a cappella. Because you know how to do that.

JOHN MATTHEWS: Yeah, I can do it, I can do it.

MARTIN: He used to be a patient here but he got better and moved out. He still comes back at least once a week to help with chores, eat breakfast and sometimes to sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE CHRISTMAS")

MATTHEWS: (Singing) I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know...

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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