Charles Washington and his trio Company of Grace sang praise songs to set a jubilant mood as hundreds of homeless Gainesville citizens gathered Thursday morning in Bo Diddley Community Plaza to receive a hot breakfast.
Washington and his singing friends volunteered at the 15th annual Breakfast on the Plaza and Homeless Services Fair. The event hosted service booths providing basic need supplies as well as a raffle including prizes such as gift cards and backpacks to the homeless.
More than 40 local organizations participated and gave donations including the Alachua County Social Service and the St. Francis House. Executive Director of the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry, Theresa Lowe believes this event is a great way to turn people that need help to organizations that can provide it.
“In addition to breakfast, we have people handing out clothes and shoes, connecting people to Veterans’ services. GPD is here doing police clearances,” Lowe said. “We have lots of things going on today. Through out the year the we collect items that can be useful to the homeless, such as socks, personal care items and snacks and we’re giving them out today.”
For Washington, this event had a more personal meaning. It was not than an opportunity to sing with his friends, it was a chance for him to pay it forward. As a Veteran and former drug addict Washington was once in the same position of many of the Breakfast attendees: homeless.
“There was a time in my life where I slept on the cardboard boxes just like everybody here in the plaza and I lived from day to day from meal to meal,” Washington said.
Washington served in the Army during the Vietnam War. During his deployment he began using drugs and upon his return eventually became addicted to heroin. His drug habits led him to prison on account of drug charges and violent acts.
“This last time that I got out of prison, a lady from the V.A. said we can help you with this lifestyle that you have,” he said. “You don’t have to live that like that and I went through their drug program…I got so caught up in living clean and living that type of life that I didn’t wanted to let go of it.”
Four years after his release, Washington started ‘Company of Grace,’ a singing group of devoted to helping others and sending a positive message.
Currently the group includes Washington, his younger brother Donald McClellon and their long time friends, Thomas Davis and Christopher Straight.
Washington believes events like Breakfast on the Plaza are valuable to those who need help. He believes it puts them in front of the people who can provide it. Now that Washington has turned his life around he also hopes to be a part of the cycle of helping people off the streets.
“Some of the people that are here today know me because I used to be out here with them,” Washington said. “I am a living witness that things can change…I stay in touch with the people that are in this position because I know that there is a way out. God has put my life back together. I am married today, I have a home, car and job. I went back to school…after forty years.”