Every day, Southwest Business Improvement District (SWBID) employee Jerome “Oatmeal” McRae talks to the people who live on the street in Southwest DC. Oatmeal makes a point to ask them whether they are hungry, whether they need anything, and how they’re feeling. He listens and offers help when he can. “He has a gift,” says Andre Witt, his superviser at SWBID. “They open up to him.” Empathy does that. Oatmeal was homeless himself for a brief time, he has slept outside and in shelters.

Why “Oatmeal”? That’s easy, his co-worker gave him the nickname in jest when he once ate two bowls at a team breakfast. For a guy who doesn’t talk much, he always offers a gentle smile and a can-do attitude—and it shows.

A few months ago, Witt asked Oatmeal to text him daily reports on how the area’s homeless were doing to see whether SWBID could offer any assistance. Oatmeal was excited about this new responsibility, and wanted to show Witt that he could handle his new tasks, but Oatmeal was having trouble articulating what he was trying to say through text.

“I could see he was having trouble sending me text messages,” said Witt, but Oatmeal did not give up. “[Oatmeal] told me that he was teaching himself grammar and vocabulary in the evenings so that he could text me updates. After a few weeks, it’s amazing, the texts he sends me contain no spelling errors.”

On Thursday, March 23, Sara Varnado and Guy Laryea from Community Connections met with the SWBID ambassador team. Community Connections is the largest nonprofit mental health agency in the nation’s capital serving men, women, and children. Community Connections’ core purpose is to provide behavioral health, residential services, and primary health care coordination to those coping with mental illness, addiction, and the aftermath of trauma and abuse—all factors for many of the area’s homeless population.

During their meeting, Varnado and Laryea discussed the unique challenges that homeless people face in the District and how the SWBID ambassadors can help them get supplies and services to the homeless folks in the Southwest area.

“The SWBID was limited in what we could do to help the homeless in Southwest DC. The relationship with Community Connections is a win/win because now we can make sure that needs of the homeless are being met,” said Witt. “We like this work. We want to get a little better at this every day.”

As SWBID Executive Director Steve Moore said, “We are honored to have someone like Oatmeal on our team and can’t wait to see how he evolves and grows!” We are, too. Thanks, Oatmeal, for what you do for our community.

By: Candace Tyler

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