Homeless person's blankets on Victoria Street, Toronto
Nouspique.com/Flickr

At 5 p.m., many people in Washington D.C. head home after a day of work. They walk in their front door, kick off their shoes and heat up a meal, or maybe they just sit on the couch and wind down a bit. Their workday is over. But for Gunther Stern, the executive director of Georgetown Ministry Center (GMC), and Dr. Ron Koshes, a psychologist, the night of work is just beginning.

On a recent, frigid March night, the two went around the Georgetown/Dupont Circle/14th Street area to check on members of the local homeless community. Stern, who is always on the lookout for those in need, carried a backpack full of emergency blankets. Their first stop was Miriam’s Kitchen, an establishment that serves an evening meal to homeless people and provides rooms used for counseling. At Miriam’s Kitchen, Stern and Koshes made sure that certain individuals who they normally check on were dressed warmly, and Koshes made certain that everyone was psychologically capable of staying out in the cold. They then headed over to George Washington University Hospital to see if anyone there needed help for the night. They spoke with a woman who said she was born in Canada and eagerly showed them an old photograph taken when she was 18-years-old, with her 31-year-old husband.

They went next to a branch of the D.C. Public Library. That night, many members of the homeless community were sitting inside at the tables. Some were listening to music, some were reading. All were dressed warmly in many garments. Stern and Koshes stopped to talk to a Vietnamese man who was listening to music. They offered him a kind word, which he accepted, and a blanket, which he refused.

This is how a nightly checkup works for the GMC. They look around alleys and bridges and they walk around Dupont Circle, seeking out certain chronically homeless people. Sometimes all they do is ask a person how they are doing, and sometimes they may save a life, perhaps by providing an emergency blanket or taking someone off the streets.

After Stern and Koshes made their rounds they drove to a local Georgetown church and entered a great room with beds along the walls on either side. Tables were set up in the middle of the room and a television played the local news. That church, part of the GMC’s winter shelter program, gave ten people a warm meal and a cot for the night.

The GMC’s winter shelter program is in operation from November through March; the program rotates among different Georgetown congregations, changing location every two weeks. The shelter opens at 7:00 p.m. and closes at 7:00 a.m. the next morning.

Inside that room in that church on that March night, a young man named Ruben Coyburn played the piano in the corner. Coyburn, a Texan and former member of the Marine Corps, has traveled to Spain, Italy, even Qatar. Today he is homeless, but he remains optimistic about his future. He studies music at the University of the District Columbia and hopes to one day become a professional musician. Not only can he play the piano, he also plays bass, and he keeps his instrument next to his bed. He loves ‘60s and ‘70s rock and jazz and admires Sam Cooke, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Claptan and John Coltrane. He loves going around the town, spending time in the parks, where he enjoys nature and meditates. Coyburn sees the positives in the shelter, how it can help with his studies, and is very thankful for the GMC.

“It means the world,” Coyburn said. “[Without the GMC] I wouldn’t be able to study with a high level of focus. It provides stability. It provides focus and stability.”

People who stay in the shelter come from all walks of life. In addition to Coyburn, there was Behzad Javanmardi, a 43 year old Iranian refugee who learned English after coming to this country and has never been able to find a job. Another man staying at the shelter that night was from Egypt.

The GMC could not operate without its many volunteers. Among them is Rich Bland, a Washington attorney who works for Save the Children; he helps out with the meal and sometimes spends the night. In a recent Lent service, Bland’s preacher spoke of the importance of study, of silence, and of service. Bland considers it his duty to serve his community, and he does so through this program. He quoted James 2-14, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” If you are not helping others, you are not fulfilling your belief as a Christian, Bland said.

The shelter is a welcoming place. Everyone appreciates each other. The homeless people who use the GMC appreciate the support, and the volunteers are happy to provide it. Malissa Johnson-Bey, a shelter monitor, summed up the reason she volunteers. “Working with the public and being of service [is rewarding], even if it’s just a smile or a kind word.”

Dinner that night was chicken potpie with bread, prepared by two volunteers. Everyone gathered in a circle, introduced themselves, and said a prayer. They sat together at a table to enjoy a good meal and each other’s company.