How The Washington Nationals Helped One Fan Save His Life


The lights were off at Nationals Park, the streets around the stadium cold, dark, and lonely as a brisk wind whipped above and around the ballpark and a hint of rain fell from the graying sky above. It fit the mood of the nation’s capital on the first night of the World Series, which was about to begin 400 miles away in Boston. It was supposed to start here, at least that’s what the pundits had said way back in April, when the Washington Nationals were a popular pick to win the National League and at least appear in the Series.

Instead, they quit playing a month ago. The magic that led to the National League East division championship in 2012 never reemerged in 2013, and the Nats spent not a single day in first place after the season’s opening week. It sure felt like a failure, especially right outside that empty ballpark.

Even through the disappointment, though, something special happened at Nationals Park this year, not on the field where fans had trained their eyes but right next to them in the stands.

That’s where a D.C. resident named Cliff (whose last name is withheld by his request) joined them for most of the last half of the season. Nationals Park was a place he came to find peace after years of struggling with homelessness, addiction, and mental illness. There’s something soothing about a ballpark — about baseball — for anyone, the sights and the sounds and the chance to watch grown men play a boy’s game. It forms some magical charm that locks us in as children and, for some anyway, never lets go. But for Cliff there’s more, a solace that maybe he’s never known anywhere else, and it comes just as much from the people around him in the stands as it does from the players on the field. There’s nowhere he’d rather be.


“I love being around the people who come to the park,” Cliff told me the first time we talked back at the end of summer. “They’re not people I’m used to being around — strung out, always looking for that next one. They’re productive citizens. It’s just being in a totally different environment than what I’m used to being in. Living in a world of addiction is a world of isolation.”

With the season over, though, Cliff’s place of solace is empty and closed, and damn, it is cold. The night didn’t feel much different two miles north, where it was windy and spitting rain and, though it’s not quite lonely yet — not with the bustle of people sinking into Union Station to make their way home — it’s hard to imagine that little patch of grass outside the Government Printing Office felt any other way nine years ago when Cliff was sleeping there, broken and bruised and strung out on whatever the drug of choice was that night.

He was just a boy when the drugs first took their grip, 12 years old when he took his first toke. Then it was alcohol. Crack. Heroin. Anything he could get his hands on to take him away from this world. He had periods of sobriety, sure, but thanks to bipolar disorder, he was always impulsive, subject to the whims of a moment and the urges of addiction.

That’s how he ended up on that patch of grass off North Capitol in the first place. He had a good job in Tulsa, working for “one of the best iron-working companies in our local” back in 2001, when he heard about some work in D.C. and convinced a union apprentice to pack everything they owned in the back of a pick-up truck and head east. The prize was a new convention center, one that would provide plenty of work — and, given that it was D.C., more money too — for a couple union handymen like them.

They never made it. Just outside St. Louis, they totaled the truck. The apprentice stuck around, but Cliff hopped on a Greyhound and kept going. D.C. may have seemed like a new frontier, but it was hardly that. He was off his medication and back on drugs almost immediately.


“I couldn’t hold a job after that. Every job you have to take a urine screen. And the jobs I didn’t, I’d get my first paycheck or two and never come back,” he said. Enough money to get his next fix, and he’d disappear for good, sometimes taking his paycheck on a Friday morning and booking off the job before lunch.

“And then I went homeless.”

For a little while it worked. He stayed in shelters and bummed money to get high. Sometimes he was able to get his fix in the shelters, sometimes, like the night a roommate caught him cooking heroin, his addiction booted him back to the streets. Two years he did this, stoned on the streets, stoned in the shelters, stoned everywhere he was as long as he could get it. And then, that one night in 2004, he put his head down on the dusty patch outside the Printing Office and went to sleep. It was fall, not too cold, but his face was bleeding and battered from a fight that night. He closed his eyes. What he didn’t know was that his life was about to change forever.

I’m sitting with Cliff in a walkway inside Nationals Park, just above section 129, where he’s been watching the game, where he’s watched most of the games for the last month and a half. It’s the last week of September and the Nationals are in the midst of a furious run toward the playoffs, one final chance to salvage their season. Tonight, though, they have the unfortunate luck of playing the Atlanta Braves, a team that’s comfortably winning the East and is trying to clinch their own playoff spot. It’s the last homestand of the season, so Cliff is trying to take in as much baseball between now and then as he can.

“Wrong hat,” he tells me, noticing the Braves logo perched on my head.

Back in the spring, Cliff was in rehab again, at least his third trip in the last decade. He had promised his dying sister a year before that he was done with the drugs and the alcohol that had gripped his life. He wasn’t.


But now here he sat, watching baseball, and he’s never been better. Cliff just picked up his six-month sobriety chip. He’s been going to meetings, 90 in 90 days when he first got out of rehab, now three or four or sometimes even five a week. He’s staying busy — a few nights before we met at the ballpark, he called a friend from the middle of the Potomac River. He was fishing. Caught a catfish.

He’s been here before, clean and ready to stay that way, but never with this much commitment.

“I mean, they say you can’t say you’re never gonna use again, but I just feel different this time,” he says. “I’ve always done something wrong when I got out of rehab. The last time, they say you shouldn’t be around people that use, I had a drug dealer who still came around and I’d let him cut up his crack. That was insane when I think about it, because all it took was one night for me to have the urge to do it.”

Being at the park, he says, is a big part of doing it right.

After a few minutes, I leave him. He has to get back to the game. The hope is seeping out of Nats Park, but it never leaves Cliff. “You’re gonna lose,” he yells as I walk away.

A makeshift tent near the Government Printing Office, near where Cliff used to sleep. CREDIT: Travis Waldron/ThinkProgress
A makeshift tent near the Government Printing Office, near where Cliff used to sleep. CREDIT: Travis Waldron/ThinkProgress

The only reason Cliff was sitting in Nationals Park that night, and the only reason the park eventually became his getaway, was because somebody woke him up in that patch of grass nine years ago. The guy who nudged Cliff awake could have been anyone. A cop looking to take him in. Or maybe somebody trying to finish the job the fight had started. Could have been someone else looking for a fix, maybe someone trying to give Cliff his next one.

It was the director of a program new to D.C. called Pathways To Housing DC. Cliff was about to become one of the fledgling program’s first clients.

Cliff had tried to find housing before, but the programs he went to told him they couldn’t help until he got the disability checks he was eligible for. The government, though, won’t send a check to a patch of dirt outside a federal building. It’s an odd, unintentional conundrum America’s web of poverty and assistance programs sometimes creates. You need an address to get the assistance. People like Cliff need the assistance just to get an address.

There are more than 6,800 people living on D.C.’s streets, according to a 2013 survey from the city’s government. The number who go in and out of homelessness each year is higher, but the report only counts those who aren’t sheltered at all. After years of increases through the Great Recession, that number dropped in 2013, but it still remains 10 percent higher than it was in 2009. Include counties and cities in Northern Virginia and southern Maryland and there are more than 11,500 homeless people in D.C.’s metro area. More than 3,200 of them are children, and the number of homeless families with children just inside the city’s borders is 38 percent higher than it was four years ago.

“[T]he greatest barrier to ending homelessness in our communities is a lack of fixed, affordable permanent housing opportunities for the lowest income households,” the report from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments states.

Pathways seeks to remedy that through what is known as housing-first rehabilitation. It targets people just like Cliff: they are chronically homeless, living on the streets for long stretches of time and even in the worst of weather, and they have some sort of mental disability that often precludes them from addressing the problem on their own. Roughly a quarter of the D.C. metro area’s homeless population counts as “chronically homeless,” according to the government report.

“Pathways to Housing ends homelessness for people who have psychiatric and other disabilities and we do that by providing housing first,” director Christy Respress said. “Most programs require people to have an income or be employed or be engaged in addictions treatment. Those things are really hard to do when you’re on the street and just trying to survive.”

To do that, Pathways relies on an extensive amount of government funding. Housing people in the District isn’t cheap. It costs the program an average of $12,000 per year to put an individual in a home, and it’s currently serving some 350 people in D.C. alone. Section 8 vouchers cover most of that, and local funding from the D.C. government, which has expanded housing funds to combat rampant homelessness on its streets, covers the rest. It costs another $10,000 a year, on average, for medical treatments for people like Cliff, who need rehabilitation, basic medical services, everything. Medicaid covers most of that. And then there’s private charity, money from Washington’s faith community and Pathways’ own fundraising arm, that covers everything else, from security deposits to furniture to basic household items. That private funding also covers needs Medicaid and housing vouchers won’t: time spent waiting in court or jail or looking for people on the street, the way the two people who found Cliff nine years ago were.

In all, it costs Pathways somewhere north of $25,000 a year to help a single person. Sound expensive? It’s not, relatively anyway. Shelters spend roughly $40,000 a year on each homeless and mentally ill person they serve. The prison system isn’t much different. Private mental health hospitals in the District spend somewhere between $700 and $800 per day on each individual they treat. In that context, a program like Pathways is cheap, and given its effectiveness, worth every penny.

And it’s worked. President George W. Bush made housing first a preferred policy in 2005. Over the next three years, chronic homelessness dropped by an estimated 30 percent. Housing first was a key part of the homeless initiatives in the 2009 stimulus act and in President Obama’s 10-year plan to eradicate homelessness, which he announced in 2010. Pathways has taken it out of urban areas to test it Vermont. It’s working there too. Canada adopted it as a preferred national policy earlier this year.

Problem is, the government is now undermining its own efforts, since budget cuts meant to reduce the federal budget deficit in the past three years have slashed funding for assistance programs that help the poor. The Section 8 vouchers Pathways relies on — and other housing assistance programs — have been cut or frozen. Right now, Pathways has Section 8 vouchers it can’t fill because the funding has lapsed, Respress said. The U.S. has experienced an incredible drop in homelessness over the last decade — its homeless population declined 17 percent to an estimated 633,000 between 2005 and 2012 — but the automatic budget cuts that took place at the beginning of 2013 and will continue for years threaten to push 100,000 low-income Americans out of those programs and, potentially, back onto the streets, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has warned.

All of that threatens the successful and innovative program that helped Cliff. Pathways pairs people like Cliff with what is known as an Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team responsible for helping them find housing, treat their mental illness, reconnect with family, or find a job. It doesn’t tell them which path to follow, that they have to be clean, that they have to get employed. It empowers the person, a person like Cliff, to choose how to proceed, even when, like Cliff, they keep struggling with the demons of the past. And struggle is exactly what Cliff did. He relapsed multiple times. He still didn’t find much in the way of work. Sometimes he disappeared for long stretches, his ACT leader unable to find him at all as he dealt with the desolation and depression that accompanies both addiction and bipolar disorder. He fell behind on rent a couple times before he asked Pathways to help him with his finances, another service the program provides. But through it all, Pathways stuck with him.

“What’s unique about Pathways is we don’t give up on people,” Respress said. “For us, housing is a mental health intervention. We are a mental health program, in a way. We needed the housing as an intervention. We couldn’t get people psychologically well on the street. It’s another arm of health care.”

Pathways doesn’t put the people it helps in a shelter or a single structure. Instead, it helps them find actual homes where they sign leases and choose where they want to live, as long as it’s affordable under the voucher. Housing provides the first step, the stability to choose what to work on next.

“It’s choice,” Respress continued. “Everything is predicated on that. When you give someone the power over their life, amazing things happen. We know our best ourselves about what we need to heal and move on. The staff is there to help them, but there is no judgment. It is very empowering.”

Eventually, Cliff decided to get clean for good. Then, when he left rehab at the beginning of April, he told Pathways that he wanted a job.

And so when Pathways brought Cliff to Nationals Park on a sunny Memorial Day afternoon thanks to a ticket package the team provided, it wasn’t just baseball he was coming to see.

“I was just talking with Cliff one day, talking about a lot of things related to his recovery, and he was talking about wanting to get a job,” Emily Buzzell, Cliff’s ACT team leader, said. “We had just been talking about the Nationals or something, and I said, ‘Who knows, maybe you could work for the Nationals one day.’”

Cliff ran straight to Pathways’ employment services department and told them that’s what he wanted to do.

Cliff loved the Nationals. The last time he’d gotten clean, he stood outside one of the gates and asked an attendant to deliver a handwritten letter to Bob Carpenter, the Nats’ play-by-play guy on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. He asked Carpenter in the letter if he could have tickets. He could afford them on his own, but getting them from the announcer would have been so cool. He never heard back.

He never heard back from the club the first time he applied for a job either, even though he went to the Nationals’ human resources day at the park and drafted his own cover letter, handwritten, with 30 adjectives describing his new-found self. Then, at the park that weekend, he talked to an usher about getting a job. The usher promised he’d bring the manager over to talk to Cliff about a job. But the manager was busy. He never came.

Maybe years ago, maybe in the throes of drugs and his mental illness, Cliff would have given up. Now, though, he talked to the manager over the phone. He sent in a resume. It seemed like he was on the brink of a job. Then weeks went by. He heard nothing. July was coming to an end, the baseball season entering its final two months. Maybe the Nationals didn’t need any more help this year. Maybe it was something worse.

“I was worried about passing the background check,” he said. “I figured that’s what it was.”

Cliff with Emily Buzzell, his ACT team leader CREDIT: Travis Waldron/ThinkProgress
Cliff with Emily Buzzell, his ACT team leader CREDIT: Travis Waldron/ThinkProgress

Finally, he got a call. He had passed the background check. Somehow, Cliff had missed the calls and emails from the manager. When they finally spoke, the manager said the Nationals had one more hiring orientation. Would Cliff want to be a part of it?

“I went in and got hired,” he said. And not for the job he’d first applied for, which would have had him stuck in a concession stand unable to see the field. This was an ushering position. “Usher was even a better job than concessionaire, because you get to watch the game! Two or three games I’ve gotten to work the front row. So that’s been real cool.”

Emily helped Cliff order shoes and the uniform he needed online.

His first game was August 9. The Nationals were well out of first place, trying to salvage any hope from a season that was slipping away. But Cliff was thrilled. He worked every shift he could. He didn’t lose a single point on the team’s grading scale, which rated ushers on appearance, attendance, and customer service. He picked up double shifts when the team had to play a double-header, he worked weekend events the franchise sponsored when the Nationals were out of town. He even got to work a concert when Sammy Hagar, one of his favorite musicians, came to town. When Hagar took the stage, Cliff was on the field.

For the last part of the season, the Nationals put him in the section right above the home dugout. He got to usher kids to the rail before games, where shortstop Ian Desmond signed autographs every day. Sometimes he got a front-row seat to sit in during games. The Nats, he said, are a big reason why he feels so confident that this time is different.

“Aw, it helps a lot,” he said. “I look forward to going to work every day. I just love it. I’m getting’ a rush out of just being down there.”

Buzzell said she got an email from Cliff a couple weeks after he started.

“It started off with, ‘I really love my job, you know?’”

CREDIT: Travis Waldron/ThinkProgress
CREDIT: Travis Waldron/ThinkProgress

By the time I met Cliff at the stadium that September night, stealing five or ten minutes of his mid-game break, the Nationals season was all but over. These games had been such an important part of his rehab. They kept him busy, exactly what he’d recommend for anyone struggling to overcome addiction the way he was. What was he going to do once the lights went dark?

Cliff already had a plan. He wanted a job at the Verizon Center, where he can usher for NBA and NHL games and the myriad events the place hosts all winter. He is heading back to Oklahoma for Christmas, where he’ll reconnect with old high school friends and visit his mom, who, he admitted, is a little wary of his homecoming, perhaps afraid of getting her hopes dashed again. While there, he plans to go to the union hall to get certified to return to ironworking. That would give him another option once he gets back to D.C. They’re about to build a new soccer stadium that will need people like him, he says.

If nothing else, he’ll get through the winter and come back here, to Nationals Park, and cheer for his team and show you to your seat, among the productive members of society, as he calls them, except now he’s on his way to becoming one of them. Whatever it is, there’s an air of confidence in his voice now. “I’ll be fine,” he says.

His baseball team, the one that helped him get to this point, will be too.