Columbia Heights shelter continues struggle against homelessness in D.C.

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By ADINA YOUNG
Observer Staff
Feb. 27, 2008

“Everyone who is eating needs to get up and get your lunch! If you ain’t eating, you need to take a seat!”

These were shouts from what could have taken place in a high school like Bell Multicultural High School on 16th Street NW in Washington.

But instead, these were the shouts of 45-year-old Leroy Jackson, a security guard at the Hermano Pedro Day Center, trying to keep order among the men in line for food.

The day center, a homeless shelter in the Shrine of the Sacred Heart Columbia Heights neighborhood in Washington, which also calls itself “multicultural” because of its bilingual staff and people who come in, is actually a block away from the high school.

Once a rural area located outside of Washington, the Columbia Heights neighborhood is considered one of the most diverse neighborhoods in DC, according to the Columbia Heights News Web site. It is largely Hispanic and African-American in population.

This is even evident with the mostly black and Latino people who come into the shelter, located in the basement of the in Mount Pleasant for assistance.


Observer photo by ADINA YOUNG
The shelter is located in the basement of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, a Mt. Pleasant church that holds Mass in four different languages.

When the doors to Hermano Pedro first opened in a modest basement in 2003, John Ireland Phillips, a 62-year-old white man, was among the first in line. He was a regular to the shelter and was hired almost a year later as a security guard.

“Now I am the utility man,” said Phillips as he pointed up to the light fixtures he helped put in.

Phillips, who is currently on disability, said he owes his current job to the man who hired him—Luis “Lucho” Vazquez, founder of the Hermano Pedro Day Center.


Observer photo by ADINA YOUNG
Miguel H. Pineda lines up to get his morning coffee. The shelter serves breakfast, lunch and dinner to anyone who comes in.

“Luis said, ‘John, there are two things I know you love — work and art,’” Phillips said. “I was raised on a farm in Loudon County. I love physical work because it brings me back to my farm days.”

Phillips also works as a contractor on the weekends for W.T. Contractors in Winchester, Va. But as a recipient of the Board of Directors of Catholic Community Service’s “Thee Father Jon Caritas Empowerment Award” for his work at the shelter, he takes pride in his work at the center.

“I feel a strong responsibility to be a good example to the other clients and volunteers,” said Phillips, who worked as security at the Smithsonian when he was younger. “I take my job very, very seriously.”

A 2004 U.S. Conference of Mayor survey of 27 cities found that the homeless population is 49 percent black, 35 percent white, 13 percent Hispanic, 2 percent American Indian and 1 percent Asian.

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless said that on an average day in 2006, approximately 9,369 persons in the District were homeless or receiving homeless services, a 13 percent increase since 2004.

Also, in the Washington area alone, 51 percent of the area’s total homeless population reside in Washington, which is more than all of the surrounding Maryland and Virginia counties combined.

Other than providing food for the homeless, the day center also offers showers, clean clothes, bilingual social services and a night shelter.
Although most of the homeless people who come to the center during the day are men, the night shelter is only open to women.

According to founder Vasquez, 36, the need for a women’s shelter in the area came up at a group counseling session shortly after the shelter’s opening.

“The women complained about no women’s shelters in this part of town,” Vasquez said. “[They said] the shelters were only downtown. So we opened up a women’s shelter in that same space that would operate at night.”

Phillips said he hopes that the plan D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty has to provide affordable housing to the homeless will happen soon, so that people don’t have to search for shelters everyday.

Vasquez said he believes that homelessness is an issue that does not have to exist in the United States.

“Just starting to think that way is important,” Vasquez said. “This is a problem that has a solution. It’s just going to take some changes in the [U.S.] system.”

The American University School of Communication Graduate Program in Journalism works to prepare students for the realities of today's news and information space and the challenges of tomorrow. Find out more by visiting us online at soc.american.edu

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