A seat for everyone: Street Sense Media chats with Silver Spring-based homeless services provider Shepherd’s Table
This article is part of our 2022 contribution to the Homeless Crisis Reporting Project in collaboration with other local newsrooms. The collective works will be published throughout the week at homelesscrisis.press.
Nearly 40 years ago, Shepherd’s Table was just a tiny soup kitchen in the back of a church in Silver Spring, Md. Today, it’s a fully functioning facility, serving over 500 nutritious meals a day and offering essential goods and services to every individual that passes through its doors. Manny Hidalgo is the executive director at Shepherd’s Table. Street Sense Media spoke with him about the organization’s services, the people it serves, and how it was affected by the pandemic.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me what led you to work in homeless services.
When I was an undergraduate student at Georgetown University, we had a priest named Father Tom King who used to hold a vigil every February to bring light to the fact that we had so many homeless people. This was in the late 80s, so we had upwards of 50,000 homeless people in D.C. We would invite homeless people in the Georgetown area to come on campus and have a candlelight vigil, and then we would sleep outside in solidarity with them.
It really alerted me to just how dangerous it was to be sleeping outside on a cold winter night. Like a lot of people, I came to Washington thinking I would go into law, maybe work in Congress, but when I saw the degree to which so many people were being left behind, it changed my whole life trajectory. I think working with people experiencing homelessness is where you really get to have the most impact, and I’ve always felt like I wanted to be where I could have the most impact.
What’s your favorite part about working at Shepherd’s Table?
Without a doubt, it’s the staff. It’s a wonderful, very committed staff, most of whom have been here for at least seven or eight years. It’s also a small staff. Right now we’re up to about 22 full-timers and yet we (serve)130,000 meals a year in addition to a whole host of social services. We have about 2,000 volunteers. Between the staff and the volunteers, just getting to know them and working with them in solidarity. The board is about 24 people, and they’re all incredibly passionate and committed. A lot of them live in the neighborhood and a lot of them have always felt this is part of why they want to be in Silver Spring, because it’s taken that approach towards people experiencing homelessness of “Yes, in my backyard. We want you here and we want to serve you. We want to see you get to a better place and be on that journey with you.” It’s such a unique place. I love the people I work with.
Bring me into the atmosphere of a meal at Shepherd’s Table.
It starts with the volunteers coming in a couple of hours before. They wash up, they put on their aprons, talk to the chef, and find out what’s needed. Often there’s some chopping and meal prep to do. You start to feel the heat from the kitchen, you start to smell the aromas. Things get louder, a little more active and energetic. We do a quick meeting where the chef goes over who’s going to be in the service line, who’s going to be wiping down tables, who’s doing the line count, who’s going to be doing the dishes. Dishes aren’t something you do just at the end of the meal, especially when you’re feeding 150 people! It’s almost like watching an orchestra, with everyone taking their places before the curtains open.
In the meantime, we’ve got the security outside lining everybody up. Everybody’s getting excited, they’re asking what’s for dinner. Somebody writes it up on a chalkboard. Folks who use a walker or are wheelchair-bound come first, they get their meals and have a volunteer assigned to help them get to a table. People are very courteous to each other and the people serving the meals. They get their food, they get through the line, and they find a place to sit. Usually, they’re out within 15 to 20 minutes. As they leave, more folks are filing in. It’s a very efficient process.
A lot of people use mealtime to catch up. You see a lot of folks talking, there’s always a lot of chatting and banter and conversation. A lot of the volunteers have been coming for a long time, so there are a lot of volunteers catching up with meal guests. It’s very warm. It gives off the vibe of the Thanksgiving experience because people are really familiar with each other.
How many meals are you serving per day?
It’s usually anywhere from 300 to 500 at Progress Place, our headquarters, and another 150 at Beyond the Table (a program that distributes to-go meals at sites in Montgomery and Prince George’s County). So it’s really anywhere from 450 to 650 meals if you combine the two.
Your website mentions that of the 80,000 people in Montgomery County experiencing food insecurity, most of them are immigrant women and children. Tell me about the demographics of the people you serve.
Through Beyond the Table, we serve meals at two locations: Parkland Middle School in Aspen Hill, and Riverdale by College Park. There, it’s overwhelmingly immigrant women and children. When it comes to Progress Place, it’s more older African American men which is typically what you see in D.C.
How would you describe the impact of having a good meal for a person who is food insecure or experiencing homelessness?
It’s necessary before you can do anything. It’s hard to make any good decision on an empty stomach. A decision to take your medication, a decision to sign up for that GED class, a decision to get out of a bad relationship, to sign up to get an apartment, to go look for a job. Having a healthy, nutritious meal is a building block for all other important decisions one makes in a day. If there’s anything you get right today, let it be what you put in your body. Hopefully, every other decision will be a good one emanating from that first, most central, important decision one makes.
Mealtime is also a moment of engagement. For us, we see mealtime as an opportunity to exchange information, to say “Hey, I haven’t seen you since last week, how’s it going with that opportunity I told you about?” I can’t tell you how many ongoing conversations I’ve had over mealtime. It’s that time to really connect and follow up and see how we can do more.
How did Shepherd’s Table come to determine the social service programs it offers? Which services are utilized the most?
Mail is super popular because people need to have an address. We have grants that allow us to help cover the cost of prescription meds. We also do a lot of case management and referrals, whether it’s for housing, mental health or other services. We have an art fair people come to on the weekends. We also do haircuts, bus tokens, and we’ll help people sign up for benefits like food stamps. Lately with what’s been going on with Governor Abbott and DeSantis sending migrants up here, we’ve been getting some of the Venezuelan and Nicaraguan migrants and helping them sign up for immigration and legal assistance to make sure they don’t get deported. We have an ongoing expungement clinic helping people expunge charges that the homeless end up with. Toiletries are big, underwear, socks, feminine hygiene products. We have a full clothing closet that’s super popular. It’s whatever’s needed. We’ll engage with them in any way that can be supportive and help them get ahead.
The demand for your services has increased by 59% since the pandemic began. How has Shepherd’s Table managed this influx?
We were very fortunate that for 2020 and 2021 our donations went up. A lot of people forwarded their stimulus checks to us. We were able to weather the storm with those additional and individual donations. The county pitched in more, foundations stepped up, places of worship stepped up. We’ve fortunately been able to continue to keep pace with the growth of demand.
Shepherd’s Table petitioned for a 59% increase in funding to match the rise in demand. Has the Montgomery County Council agreed to meet this increase for FY23?
They didn’t. We haven’t seen an increase in government (funding). This year we’ll probably see a deficit. After two years of record surpluses, in the aggregate, we’ll be fine. But unfortunately, we’ve not been able to get the county to step up.
Describe Shepherd’s Table’s relationship with the larger community through the pandemic.
The total number of volunteers has gone down by around 400 because of Covid. At the height of COVID, we told everyone over the age of 65 not to come, which is a big portion of our volunteers. But we’ve been back to normal, asking everyone to come back now for at least the whole year so we’re getting back up there. In 2023, our numbers should be where they were before the pandemic. But we’re still feeling a need for more volunteers. We’re not out of the woods yet.