Ashburn-based group works with homeless populations

The One that Wandered Off
By Tracy Owens 

There is a well-known verse in the Bible – Matthew 18:12 to be exact – that reads, in part: “If a man owns 100 sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the 99 on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?” 

That simple concept – that we shouldn’t give up on the lost among us – means a lot to Brian Silvestri. But it took him a while to realize it. 

In 2015, Silvestri, who lives on a quiet street off Ashburn Road, was invited to travel to San Diego to camp among the city’s homeless population. His gut reaction: “Absolutely not.” 

“I ran away from the concept,” Silvestri said. “It was beyond my comfort zone.” 

An engineer and tech startup guru by profession, Silvestri says he is accustomed to looking for solutions to problems. But traveling across the country on a mission trip and sleeping on the streets with homeless people didn’t sound like that.

That first invitation came from Will Cravens, at the time a pastor at Bridge Community Church of Loudoun.  

Since 2015, Cravens has been traveling to other cities in America to camp with and share stories with homeless people, and in 2022 he established a not-for-profit called 99 For 1 – the name taken from the parable of the lone sheep gone astray. 

Sandra and Will Cravens

Cravens has 30-plus years of experience in nonprofit and ministry work, including working for Young Life. Recently he and his wife, Sandra, moved with their two young daughters from Ashburn to Englewood, Fla., but the organization’s ties are still in Loudoun. 

Cravens’ work with the homeless began in a most personal way. In 2014, his childhood best friend, named Ed, was living in San Diego and working as a custom cabinet maker. Cravens knew Ed was having personal troubles, and then one day Ed’s mother called Cravens and told him that Ed had been evicted. He had thrown his phone away and gone to live on the streets. 

It took Cravens time to figure out how to respond, but eventually his faith led him to this: “If I were homeless, how would I want to be loved? I would hope I wouldn’t be forgotten.” 

So Cravens went by himself to San Diego that winter to look for Ed. He didn’t find Ed that year, but one of the homeless people he met, a man called “Crazy Ted,” dared Cravens to come back and live on the streets with no food and no money. 

Cravens returned to his Ashburn church and one day asked, “Who likes camping?” His parishioner and friend Steve Bowman, who owns Bowman’s Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning Inc., was in. 

“It was rough,” Cravens said of his and Bowman’s first experience sleeping on the streets in California. On Ocean Beach, they were awakened by a police officer with his flashlight in their faces. As they struggled with their packs, they saw a news crew there to report on the weather. They showed the crew the picture of Ed and, after the story aired, received a lot of leads. 

Those leads took Cravens and his wife to Maui in 2017, where they saw Ed, but he refused to meet with them. They confirmed he was dealing with addiction and mental health issues. But in the meantime, something someone had said to Cravens resonated: “Everyone you meet on the streets is somebody else’s Ed.” 

Even though he knew his friend wasn’t there, Cravens took another group back to San Diego in September 2017. The group returned every year and rekindled connections. 

And Cravens kept asking Brian Silvestri – year after year – to join them. Silvestri listened as participants on the mission trips talked about how some of the people they had met on the streets were changing their lives for the better. 

He noticed something else. “I saw how it was impacting the people who were coming back,” he said.

Indeed, the participants had found new purpose in life and renewed energy for serving others and making change in the world. 

So, still somewhat unexpectedly, Silvestri heard himself saying yes to a San Diego mission trip in January 2020. Never before had he sat down to a meal with someone he didn’t know, living in terrible circumstances, and simply asked them if they wanted to share a story, nothing else. 

In 2021, Cravens, Silvestri and Bowman traveled to 12 cities, one a month, from Chicago to New York City, from Nashville to Tampa, to meet homeless people and the people who help them. These visits set the foundation for establishing 99 For 1. 

Silvestri shared his experiences at Ashburn’s Old Ox Brewery at a fundraiser for 99 For 1 in November. It was the second annual gathering for the organization there. Another will be held this November. One of the people in the crowd, Ashburn Farm resident Michelle Ferrao, was immediately inspired to volunteer for the January 2024 trip. 

Her 21-year-old son, Ricci, joined her, and it was an amazing bonding experience for them.

“Will should have warned me that it would change my life,” Ferrao said. “The love we witnessed was truly unconditional love. I walked away with a new family.” 

And whatever became of Ed – Will Cravens’ childhood friend? In June 2020, Ed was in a terrible bicycle accident in Hawaii, which eventually led to his coming back to Virginia and being nurtured by Cravens’ faith community in Ashburn. Today, he is in recovery and back in Hawaii working at a not-for-profit farm.

Tracy Owens is a former magazine editor who writes about arts, businesses and people in the Southeast. Her work has appeared in Salon, Gulfshore Life, Islandia Journal and many other publications.