A photo of Wendell Williams and the shop owner on H Street that donated to him.
Wendell Williams

If you’ve been following my column you know that I am on a year-long quest to document the kind things we do for one another without knowing the importance of that act for the person on the receiving end at that moment. 

When I think of just the many kind things done for me by, in most cases, complete strangers,  I wonder how big a hall I would need to assemble them all in one place. Most of the key people connected to helping me rebuild my life are in my mind mainly faceless as the years have passed, but their spirits remain alive in my heart when I am asked to pay it forward.  

One of those kind acts happened on newly gentrified H Street in Northeast Washington some six or seven years ago. 

On a warm day, I was out at lunchtime with the paper seeking donations. It was a really hot, muggy day. I had recently decided that a change was needed in my life and I set out to raise enough through donations to get me to a place in Chantilly, Virginia, that could begin to get me the help I desperately needed. I was at the bottom and I knew it. 

I positioned myself in front of a new trendy pizza establishment. As the noon crowd started to roll in, my basket started to fill up. Many people stopped to ask me about the paper. I found most of them sincerely interested in the subjects covered in that edition.  

Then it happened.  

While I was engaged in a conversation with a young African American man who spoke of his motivation to help those suffering from homelessness, I turned and noticed my basket was gone. I looked up and saw a young man calmly walking away with it.  

I started to shout for help as both the young man I was talking to and the other one walked briskly away and then began to run in a trot. When they saw me coming, they took off running and I was no match for their speed and pace. In half a block my heart was jumping out of my chest and I stopped to ask for help. Some of the neighborhood bystanders saw what was happening and said nothing, telling me later it was the code of the streets.  

I could still see the guys a block or so away as they broke it down to a quick walk. At that point, someone pointed out that there were two policemen having lunch just inside the pizza place. I ran in and asked for their help. They replied they were on lunch break and, looking me up and down, said “Call 911” in a smart  aleck tone, like “you think we are going to stop eating our lunch to help You?” The officers were African American too. Damn, I said to myself.  

“Wow,” I thought, “Being homeless doesn’t even rate police protection.” Then a kind soul in the restaurant used their cell and called 911 for me. Being on H Street, a cop showed up pretty quickly. When asked who called, I said I did and the officer’s tone changed.  Before asking me anything about what had just happened, he asked me for my ID.  

When I tried to tell him the thieves were way down the street and if we hurried we could get them, he repeated his request. This time he added “….and your social security number.”  I then realized what he was doing. Even when you are a victim, being homeless gives some officers a chance to make an arrest, thinking, I may be wanted or have an open warrant. So he was “running” my name before addressing my plight. 

I watched as the two bandits quickly walked out of sight. I then asked the cop to radio a BOLO (Be on the lookout) along with setting up a perimeter and the officer practically laughed in my face.  

It was at this point the best parts of humanity came out in several people. Watching the interaction got some of the bystanders so disgusted, one guy even said he saw the whole thing and had thought the guys were with me —  a testimony to how slick they were — and gave accurate descriptions of the suspects to the police officer. Still the officer went on with my ID check until he received a message  on his radio that there were no warrants. By then the robbers were long gone. All of a sudden, others in the crowd just started giving me dollars. One gentleman even told me to stand there and wait while he walked down the street to the nearest bank to use the ATM machine. 

Something that was so hurtful was turning into this bright sunny moment as those people on that block of H Street rallied together to help me overcome something what was otherwise devastating.  

It hurt being robbed in broad daylight. But it was even more of a hurt considering that it was two young African American men who did this to me, and the indifferent cops were African Americans, too. And the people who came to my aid were overwhelmingly not African American.  

As I counted up the donations that came in, I was still a little disgusted and angry because I was considerably short of my goal that would have gotten me to the treatment center I was attempting to get to that day in Chantilly. At the last minute as I turned to walk away, a gentleman came out of a business and motioned for me to come inside. He asked me what had happened because he saw the commotion and I told him. He then walked behind the counter, opened the cash register, reached in and handed me several bills and said, “I really hope this makes a difference.” 

It is said it takes a village to raise a child. I also believe it takes a village to reclaim a life. In this particular instance, a group of strangers on gentrified H Street became my Village, through their many random acts of kindness toward me that day. 


Please follow Wendell as he shares the best of the many kind acts he and others have been recipients of. Wendell is also sharing the Random Acts of Kindness you have experienced. Send your stories to [email protected]