There, he was taken under the wing of William Hudson, 54, a veteran maintenance man — and, as it turned out, a former SOME client. In 1999, Hudson completed SOME’s addiction recovery program in West Virginia.
“I just got tired of being in the space I was in,” Hudson explained of his motivation for quitting.
When he returned to Washington, Hudson got more help from SOME. He stayed in transitional housing, where he gained independent living skills. When he was ready, he moved into his own apartment.
“It was the first time I ever had my own place, paying rent,” he said. “It was pretty cool. From there, I haven’t looked back since. It changed my life completely. It saved my life.”
Hudson said he sometimes recognizes people he knew back when he was running the streets.
“There’s people still out there today that are out there when I was out there,” he said. “All I can do is lead by example. People tell me because of me changing my lifestyle, they changed theirs.”
Thomas said he has noticed the same thing. In his blue work shirt, keys jangling, people look at him a different way.
He’s noticed something else, too: Buildings have taken on a whole new meaning. He sees them in an entirely different way, as complex systems that just might need the help of someone like him.
“Every time I walk into one, I’m looking around,” Thomas said. “You want to be aware. I walk down that hallway, I can spot a light that’s out or a doorknob that’s loose.”
There’s a lovely tradition at So Others Might Eat: When graduates of its Center for Employment Training receive a job offer, they’re invited back to the Conway Center to ring a bell that stands outside the classrooms.
“I’d seen people ring it before and I said, ‘I’ve got to do that,’ ” Thomas said.
When he got his job, the classrooms and nearby offices emptied as people filled the lobby to congratulate him.
Said Thomas: “I gave a little speech. ‘Never give up. If you really want to do something, stick with it and work hard.’ ”
And he struck the bell.
The sound of that bell — loud, clear, honest — is echoing still.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.