Charles Armstrong would be the kind of minister that churchgoers know they can trust with their secrets and their souls. At 59, he one day hopes to use both his story and his faith to help others. His knowledge gained from his journey overcoming homelessness and finding direction in religion as well as his calm demeanor would make Charles the ideal spiritual advisor.
“I can’t really speak on something that I haven’t experienced myself,” he said. “Mostly stuff that I would talk about is stuff that I’ve gone through and how I’ve overcome it.” He hopes others can learn from how he persevered through hardship and became closer to God.
Originally from St. Mary’s County in Maryland, he moved to the District in 1979. Street Sense gave him confidence and a sense of purpose he needed when he was homeless. “It made me feel better about myself,” Charles said, “It gave me something to do, besides doing drugs and drinking and partying.” Discovering a more positive outlook on life through his work and his faith helped him through the time when he was forced to sleep on the streets, moving him away from doing “crazy stuff” like stealing.
His deep laugh booms in between his musings on righteousness, truths he has learned through difficult and happy moments. Now he finds meaning in gospel music and studying his Bible, attending a Baptist or Catholic church when he can. He also writes in Street Sense’s Wednesday workshop, where he gives voice to his own story, as well as struggles of others who used to live on the street.
Charles became a vendor for Street Sense in 2008. Since then he has worked for the Washington Post Express, and he has worked as a kitchen utility worker at American University for the past four years, where he says one of the benefits of the job is interaction with college students. Before joining Street Sense, Charles worked doing everything from landscaping to fast food service to working on the D.C. cruise ship Odyssey.
To those who are homeless like he was, he says not to give up, but to keep looking for opportunities. “Keep knocking on the door until that door opens up,” he said. Patience and hard work paid off for him. “You don’t have to be homeless, you might have started out that way but you don’t have to continue to go that way.”
Charles loves movies – Western, gangster, and horror – as well as going for walks in the woods or by the water when he is outside the city. He is married and has five sisters and one brother, many who live locally. He enjoys cookouts and names shrimp as one of his many favorite foods.
His philosophy on life is one of hope, patience, and endless gratitude. His favorite Bible verse is Matthew 6:33, “Seek you first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and everything be added unto you.” He gives thanks each day for his health, and takes advantage of his current stability to counsel others going through difficulty, like one friend who is struggling to find a job and keep his spirits up.
Today, his struggles seem more manageable; he can derive satisfaction from overcoming obstacles like washing an intimidatingly huge pile of dishes at work. Most important to him is treating other people well and uplifting them when they need it, like he once did.
He hopes he can help others find the peace that he has achieved by focusing on the truth. “If I see something wrong, or if I see you doing something wrong, I’m going to definitely let you know,” he said. “If you see me doing something wrong I would want somebody to let me know.”
In short, Charles tells it like it is, with the empathy and dignity that comes from having gone through the worst of life and emerged wiser for it.