SILVER SPRING – Mike Ditch crossed Georgia Avenue recklessly as cars whizzed by and pointed to a parking garage and the back of the post office – places he once slept.
Then he pointed to an apartment building close by, and proudly announced it was his new home, his first real home since 1991.
Ditch considers himself lucky. At times he only had 3 cents in his pocket and the pair of pants he wore, he said. This Christmas season he has a lot to be thankful for, he said.
To celebrate the holiday, he says he’ll probably smoke a Palmer cigarette – inside.
It’s a freedom to be able to smoke indoors, Ditch said, now employed as a chemical information specialist for an agricultural company in Beltsville. It’s one of the “dumb, stupid habits” he’s missed while living on the streets.
He can even go to the bathroom and smoke at the same time now, he said, laughing, rolling a cigarette between his fingers.
Years ago when the holiday season arrived, Ditch said, he felt like “a little kid with his nose pressed up against the window.”
“[But] you don’t want to press too close because you don’t want to feel the pain,” he said.
It was hard to see happy, smiling couples and realize he didn’t have anything to give to someone else, the 53-year-old Silver Spring resident said. Yet like the saying goes – there was a silver lining.
“Everything in this world is possible,” Ditch said. Things happen unexpectedly, he said, but he never prepared for not having a home.
Born in Fells Point, Calif., Ditch was an “Army brat.” His family bounced from California to the Washington area, but he grew up in Fairfax County and graduated from a Fairfax high school. He served in the Army, married, and then divorced in 1974. He has two sons, and has not spoken to either of them for more than 15 years.
Ditch worked a variety of jobs around the country and settled in Seattle. He studied general and agricultural engineering in college in Washington state, but left just a few credits shy of graduating when his program was canceled.
In January 1991 this normal life changed: he began his journey back to this area, but when he stopped for gas, he suddenly couldn’t walk. It was spina bifida occulta, a debilitating, congenital condition that made him loose control of his right leg. He stayed in a Pennsylvania shelter for three months to recover. He sought treatment for his pain, but no one at the shelter or the nearby hospital, could do anything to help, he said.
“It was grin-and-bear-it time,” he said.
Ditch left Pennsylvania later in 1991 and arrived in Silver Spring – where he found the Shepherd’s Table, a soup kitchen and resource center for homeless people.
He came in looking for services, said John Eckenrode, a Silver Spring social worker, who met Ditch eight years ago at the facility. “I thought he handled himself quite well,” Eckenrode said. Ditch slept on the streets mostly, which took some adjustment time – like about four years to learn how to sleep, he said.
“I’d always sleep with one eye open,” he said. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
He kept a low profile, like many other homeless people do, he said. “You don’t want people to be mad at you.” During the day he would sit and drink coffee in a pool hall and keep warm. He fought bitter winter temperatures with “lots and lots and lots” of blankets and cardboard. Then, around 11 p.m., when the town shuts down, Ditch would search for the right spot to settle for the evening. He said he always wanted a full-time job but there was never enough money to pay for everything. From a volunteer he learned about a temporary job at the USDA Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville. He worked there for nine months. It was farm work, he said, like stacking hay. With the help of Eckenrode, he found an old trailer and used it for a few winters, when he and seven or eight others would “pack together like logs” to fight the cold. “I tried to reach others,” Ditch said, “but some didn’t want to come.” Since April, when he got his full-time job, every Saturday Ditch has volunteered at the Shepherd’s Table to help distribute clothes to the needy. “Mike’s always been a caring person,” said Ron Holder, security and clothes closet coordinator and counselor at the Shepherd’s Table. Holder, who has known Ditch for the last two years, said he hasn’t changed much since his transition. “If he’s homeless, if he’s employed, if he volunteers, he’s still Mike,” said Holder. Ditch used to be a recipient. He was so appreciative, said Holder, that he wanted to contribute too. Donations helped him get through, Ditch said, surrounded by circular department store racks of coats and pants inside the building.
He’s lucky, he repeats. His new apartment is filled with a queen-size bed and dinette set, he said. And he has more than one pair of worn trousers. “I have more clothes,” he said, laughing, “than God.” -30-