Two guests stand on the stoop in front of St. Margaret's Episcopal Church, which hosts the Charlie's Place program.
credit: Charlie's Place

For 27 years, the doors at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Dupont Circle have opened bright and early for the homeless community.

Every Tuesday-Saturday morning at 6:30, the Charlie’s Place program serves breakfast to between 60 and 70 people.

Guests are welcomed in for a pre-breakfast consisting of coffee, tea, juice, and pastries. Then, at 7:30, the meal service starts in earnest with announcements — including job opportunities, volunteer introductions and a prayer read in English and Spanish.

A typical meal might consist of spaghetti with meat, green vegetables, warm bread, and cake. Guests also have the option to take a bagged lunch and bottled water. While Charlie’s Place is often referred to as a “breakfast program,” Chef Christina Jenkins, who started out as a client, sets out each day to create a filling, balanced, healthy meal that will get people through the day.

People lined up at a table for food, with volunteers serving on the other side.

The breakfast line at Charlie’s Place. Photo courtesy of Charlie’s Place

Women, who make up about 10 percent of Charlie’s Place clientele, are invited to get in line for food first. The program originated to primarily serve men in the Latinx and Spanish-speaking communities of the Adams Morgan neighborhood in 1990. As word spread, the operation expanded to include women, who are “cherished” by Barbara Wille, director of development at Charlie’s Place.

While they wait for breakfast and sip coffee, clients can also ask a volunteer for any clothing items they might need. Volunteers make their way back to the clothing closet, which is also stocked with blankets, menstrual hygiene products, and other necessities. The demand for t-shirts, shorts, and athletic socks swells in the summer months. The low-barrier model of Charlie’s Place prevents them from receiving any government funding, according to Wille. So they rely entirely on donations.

In addition to food and clothing, a barber who goes by Dom provides free haircuts. He has been visiting Charlie’s Place as a client for two years and was hired to share his skills 11 months ago. Dom has been cutting hair since he was in high school, originally just fooling around with his friends.

A haircut can be incredibly important for someone experiencing homelessness, according to Dom. It is something to bring back their old look and give them confidence. “When you look good, you feel good,” Dom said, which is one reason he loves his work. Though he is still experiencing homelessness, Dom feels a responsibility to help others in the community as best he can.

A smiling man with long hair, a baseball cap and Band-Aids under his eyes standing in front of a bright red door with the number 1820 on it.

Lorenzo is a regular at Charlie’s Place. He always applies Band-Aids under his eyes. Photo courtesy of Charlie’s Place

Also on hand is a nurse practitioner who can write prescriptions, administer health screenings and provide referrals to physicians for more serious health issues. She frequently gives lectures on topics like HIV prevention and synthetic marijuana.

Once a week, an art therapy program is held after breakfast by Anais Lugo. Lugo said this type of program really helps groups of people with different challenges and further strengthens community bonds. While all therapy can be valuable to anyone, the art therapy program is especially important because it serves people who are predisposed to untreated mental health problems. Lugo and the Charlie’s Place staff see it as an opportunity for guests to prioritize their emotional health and relieve stress, while also having a chance to be heard in a group. The program combines cognitive skills with physical sensation to access parts of the brain that traditional talk therapy cannot. The expression can help relieve a lot of emotional burdens and lead to personal discovery, according to Lugo. An exhibition of the art will soon be held to raise awareness of what art therapy is and to raise money to continue to fund the program.

The people who come through the doors of St. Margaret’s truly believe in their program and the work they do. Interim program director Reggie Cox has been with Charlie’s Place for 5 years, first as a client. He started out like many other participants, coming once a week for a balanced, hot meal and some quiet time in the morning. As he started to visit more regularly, he noticed a lull in volunteers and offered to help. After both becoming a daily volunteer for Charlie’s Place and helping with maintenance for St. Margaret’s, Cox was offered a job.

Cox, Jenkins and Dom are a testament to the dedication and compassion of Charlie’s Place.

“Immediately when I came in the door, it was a different atmosphere,” Cox said. “There were guys that acted up in other programs, I didn’t even recognize them here.”

Charlie’s Place gives guests a chance to escape their daily stress and relax among friendly faces and food.


Correction (08/25/2017)

This article has been updated to reflect that Dom is paid for his hair cutting work at Charlie’s Place and that the nurse practitioner who is present is on staff with Unity Healthcare. The article initially stated that Dom was a volunteer and the nurse practitioner was on staff.