By Joan Solomon Janshego
It is a little known fact that Chevy Chase has had a homeless shelter for men since December 1992. The shelter is located in the educational wing at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, just south of Nebraska on Connecticut Avenue.
The following is a note we received from a shelter volunteer, Diana Zurer, some years ago. It is entitled “Reflections by a St. Paul’s Shelter Volunteer.”
“I’ve been a volunteer at the Shelter since its inception. The first year, I was asked to write up something for the church newsletter and recently came upon it. It’s interesting how my feelings are very similar, years later. I’m not a member of St. Paul’s. In fact, I’m Jewish. My synagogue provides meals for a large shelter, and of course that fulfills a need, but I prefer to be part of St. Paul’s effort. One wants to make an individual human connection, in one’s own community, and one is enriched by the encounter. Over 30 years ago, my husband and I were Peace Corps volunteers for 2 years in Thailand, and we always say we got more out of it than the Thais. The same is true here. Over the years, I’ve met so many interesting men trying to change their lives, gracious to the constant stream of dinner guests, friendly and appreciative.
“The usual encounter with the homeless is being approached on the street and giving or more often, not giving, money – so unsatisfactory all around. One wants so much to put a real face on this issue and to connect and do something meaningful. I have an old New Yorker carton on my bulletin board – a man is sitting at the table and a woman comes in holding a birthday cake full of candles. The caption is – ‘Food as a metaphor for love, again.’ That says it all. I try to make a real effort for my meals at the Shelter, and the guys like my cooking. And I think they know it is a metaphor for love. I wish them the very best and thank St Paul’s for this wonderful effort.”
The idea for a homeless shelter began in 1992, when Pastor Tom Omholt called me – as chairman of the Social Ministry Committee – and said. “ I think we need to open a homeless shelter.”
The impetus was a controversy that developed when the city wanted to open an emergency homeless shelter at Guy Mason Recreational Center at Calvert Street. A “not in my neighborhood” battle ensued. But some Ward 3 people of good will wanted to make a contribution to help in the fight against homelessness, and the Community Council for the Homeless was born.
And then a couple of local churches came to the rescue and opened homeless shelters in their buildings.
These included St. Luke’s Methodist Church in Georgetown and Metropolitan Methodist In AU Park.
I talked to people from those churches in order to get an idea as to what they were doing. It was pretty simple. They had up to 6 men in their shelter, which was staffed with a paid counselor. Men came in at 6 PM and got a hot meal prepared and delivered to the church by a volunteer. The men had a warm, safe bed and a place to shower and wash their clothes.
With this model in mind, the next task for our small Social Ministry committee was to get a buy-in from church members and the immediate neighbors.
To that end, we had a potluck at the church where we invited the Church’s neighbors, informing them that the men would be referred to us by social workers at the Community Council for the Homeless and the men would be supervised at all times.
We also held meeting with parents and teachers from the Pre-Nursery and Montessori Schools that are housed in the church. as well as parents from Murch Elementary School, which is across the street from the church.
Our next task was to got a rooster of 50 volunteers who would agree to bring a hot meal to the church. Heleny Cook, a non-St. Paul’s member, held a meeting at her Barnaby Woods home. Ten people attended who agreed to find ten more people to volunteer. We had the beginning nucleus of a volunteer list.
Next, we held several forums at the church. Pastor Omholt said that our opening the shelter should be biblically based. So our invitation letter to the congregation began with the familiar words from Matthew, Chapter. 25: “For I was …a stranger and you took me in. . . verily I say unto you, inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.”
Gillian Wood, who was a street worker at the community Council for the homeless, led our first congregational forum. She described the homeless population.
Another forum was led by Sister Ronnie Daniels, a Benedictine nun who provided medical care to the homeless.
The third forum was led by Rev. Edin Naylor, Executive Director of Lutheran Social Service, who discussed the biblical/theological basis for opening our church to the homeless.
Finally, there was a panel discussion by participants of the other church-based shelters: St. Luke’s Methodist, Metropolitan Methodist and St. Columba’s Episcopal.
On Thursday, October 15, 1992, members of the Church council of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church approved a motion from the Social Ministry Committee to establish an emergency shelter for 4 homeless men in the educational building of the church.
When the motion was put before the congregation on November 1, 1992, there was some small dissent, mostly around issues of safety. However, it was approved.
We then moved quickly – having a shower and a washer and dryer installed in the shelter. The last obstacle was met when we got a Certificate of Occupancy from the District of Columbia, and we passed an inspection. We opened in December 1992.
In 1996 we expanded the shelter to 5 men. It was a winter shelter until November 2001 when we expanded to year-around operation.
We developed a set of rules that the men had to follow, including meeting with their social worker at Friendship Place on a regular basis, agreeing to come in on time every evening at 6:30 pm, and helping with shelter chores. In return, we promised to support the men by providing a warm, safe environment where they could take the first step to getting their lives back together again.
We found that there were various reasons for homelessness. Some men were homeless for situational reasons, such as the loss of a job. But others were homeless because of addictions or mental illness. For those who were employable, we helped them to gain employment. For those who were not employable because of mental illness we worked with social workers at Friendship Place in efforts to get SSI benefits and a permanent place to live. Those who had addiction issues were referred to AA or long-term treatment such as the Salvation Army.
As of 2016, the shelter is still in operation. A choir member, Ellen Cohen, said that she is comforted when she leaves choir practice at night when she sees the men outside of the shelter smoking. So we went from some members in 1992 voicing concern about safety to the choir member who felt comforted that the men were there.
Since 1992, St, Paul’s has housed and helped hundreds of men.
There are many stories to tell. However, one particular man stands out.
Larry was born into a privileged life. His parents are no longer living, but he was the son of a doctor at Georgetown University Hospital. He was an actor early in his life but encountered some bad luck, which he was not able to cope with in a constructive way. He was homeless for almost four years. During that time, he led a solitary existence because he was frightened all the time. He said that his defense mechanism was a permanent scowl on his face, and it was difficult to erase the scowl once he was at the shelter although he finally felt safe there.
Before coming to the shelter, Larry was living in the woods near Arlington Cemetery after being attacked while sleeping in front of a bank.
Although he remained introverted while at the shelter, it soon became apparent that Larry was an intelligent and witty man. We learned that when he was homeless, he joined a poetry writing worship at Rachael’s Kitchen. One evening at the shelter, Larry had us mesmerized as he read his poetry. Larry, minus the scowl, became Larry the confident actor.
The poem below, “Walking the J on K” refers to jaywalking on K Street. Larry makes reference to looking for gold “carat” on the street in the poem. This refers to his looking for loose change on the pavement. Larry said he once made a half-hearted attempt to pan-handle, but when someone dropped some coins into his cup, he was so mortified that he never did it again.
The happy ending is that, while at St, Paul’s Shelter, Larry found a construction job, saved $700 and was able to move into a subsidized apartment.
‘Walking the J on K’ – by Larry
The sounds of machinery greet my day
A constant barrage of hydraulic compressed air
Horns honking, wheels turning, sirens screaming
Women walking, their horses clomping along
My senses become so aware
Of the attitudes, the rudeness, the menacing stares
Dressed for combat, I have my gear
On the front lines for over three years
My eyes are always searching, scanning
Looking for gold carats that grow into rings
Dodging taxis, buses, and cars – taking chances
Getting a jump on the light
Walking the J on K
Going by the numbers block by block
Crisscrossing the alphabet H through P
Always wary of the animal in me
My back, my knees and feet are compressed
by the weight
Hungry all the time
The light is fading into night
Reflected shadows bounce along the walls
No place to hide
No place at all.