II met John “Mick” Matthews in 2011. He sold the Street Sense Media newspaper and took part in the Occupy D.C. movement that began that fall.
True to that political bent, Mick’s last correspondence with me this June was a short message asking if we would consider printing controversial social commentary that he wished to write.
He was unable to submit a draft before he died in early September.
The advocates who organize the annual Homeless Memorial Vigil in D.C. drive home the message that people are dying without “the dignity of a home.” But Mick had that, for a little over two years. He was one of 79 people that organizers chose to begin honoring this year, for having died very soon after exiting homelessness.
According to his cousin Brandon, who informed us of his passing, Mick would mostly sit and pass time in his apartment, sometimes just staring. Daily tasks were difficult for him.
That’s not the Mick I knew. Rather, it is the result of living on the streets of D.C., where he slept for at least six years.
The Mick I knew, a native Washingtonian, occupied Freedom Plaza. He visited Franklin Park just to catch up with friends. He crossed from one corner of the city to another, daily, to meet his basic needs. And he described the super-hero persona that he would take on when energetically selling our newspaper: Vendor Man.
Before that, he said he had done everything: office work, construction, landscaping, retail, door-to-door sales. “You name it, I’ve probably done it,” he once said in an interview.
Mick was not struggling until he was laid off from a siding firm that responded to a call from FEMA to restore damage after a slew of tornadoes hit Western Maryland. The firm was never paid and went out of business. Mick was not homeless until his mother, who he returned to D.C. to care for, passed away. The house had to be sold to cover her debts.
After working with multiple organizations to pursue housing, Mick was finally matched to a place of his own at the end of 2014. Before that, he slept near a grate on Connecticut Avenue, a block south of Dupont Circle. His son occasionally stayed there with him.
I suspect the location was partially chosen as a silent protest, so that passersby would have to see his struggle. But it was also across the street from a Starbucks where Mick could grab some heat, maybe a coffee, and a place to write. He confided that if he made a witty-enough sign, it was also worth panhandling late at night as wealthy young patrons left the The Lucky Bar and other such establishments on that strip.
Once Mick was approved for assistance and found a place, he had to wait to move in until a railing was installed, a fault found during routine safety inspection. He claimed this was a project he could easily do himself, but nonetheless had to wait for some additional weeks in the cold. He seemed to visibly age from day to day.
In the year leading up to this, Mick experienced three heart attacks. While he was waiting to move in, Mick sat on a panel of experts to discuss physical health and homelessness. He described the wear and tear the street life had taken on his body and said there were days when it took him an hour to walk one city block. Obtaining basic food and hygiene had become difficult. “Those were some of the scariest times of my entire life,” Matthews said at the forum.
When the time came to discuss potential solutions, he said that supporting movements such as The Way Home Campaign and continually raising the importance of health care for the homeless with public officials are both essential.
“They will have no choice but to answer,” Mick said. So I’m sure he would be proud to have his story, in part, shared here during Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day this year. I only wish he could do it himself. While he did not die without a home, he also did not make it to 45-years-old.
I mentioned that Mick was a prolific writer. Long-time readers will remember his cult-classic, “The Mysterious Masonic Ring.” Mick delivered it to us by the chapter, which we would then often need to break down into smaller pieces to fit in the paper regularly without monopolizing the platform. In recent readership surveys, we’ve continued to receive comments asking how the story ends. Keep in mind this is years after the fact. The last segment we published was in October 2014. Mick always intended to finish it once he got settled and recovered in housing. His cousin Brandon said the story made Mick a local celebrity.
I think the most appropriate clip of his that we could share is a poem that won Mick first place in the 2013 CNHED Housing for All Rally writing competition. When he accepted the award, he took a photo with then Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser. I sincerely believe they both shared the dream that he penned. While there are many people working very hard to make it a reality, we have a long way to go.
A Possible City
by John “Mick” Matthews
Imagine if you will, a city which as yet does not exist,
where you can walk down the street in the middle of the night
and not see one man, one woman, asleep on a bench
or shivering for warmth on a grate.
A city where the closing of a homeless shelter
brings not reactionary demonstrations of protest
but revolutionary celebrations
for it is not needed anymore.
A city where everyone has a place to cook
and eat a meal with the family of his fellow man;
a place to live, to learn, to love
a place to sleep, a place called “home”.
This city could be called Washington DC.
The time could be relatively soon.
A few new ideas, a new commitment,
and this city could truly have Housing for All.