Hannah Morgan

Hispanic residents of the District who are coping with poverty, illness and homelessness may not know about the help that is available to them. Language and cultural barriers, fears about immigration status and traumas in their lives may hinder them from learning about social services, medical care and shelters. But Renzo Gonzales, outreach director at Neighbors’ Consejo, is dedicated to bridging those gaps. The organization’s name means “Neighbors’ Council” and is intended to evoke a sense of cooperation and dignity. Gonzales spends his days patrolling the Hispanic communities within the neighborhoods of Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan, working to get assistance to people who might otherwise go without it.

Renzo Gonzalez drives through Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan looking for homeless people who need a ride to nearby shelters.

Renzo Gonzalez drives through Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan looking for homeless people who need a ride to nearby shelters. Photo by Hannah Morgan

With winter approaching, Gonzales has plenty of emergency supplies in stock and ready to be used. When temperatures drop below freezing, he loads a van with donated blankets, pants, gloves, scarves and hats. Gonzales distributes the warm gear to people huddled on street corners or sleeping in parks, and offers many a ride to a shelter.

Gonzales sees a sense of urgency in his work. He knows people can die in the cold. He says his goal is to “cover more area in less time, giving out more blankets and being more diligent.”

One recent afternoon, Gonzales printed and folded dozens of fliers, printed in both Spanish and English, listing the names and phone numbers of clinics, agencies and shelters that provide bilingual services. When the weather is milder, he distributes the fliers and spreads the word about the mental health, substance abuse and outreach services that Neighbors’ Consejo offers. He also goes beyond his immediate neighborhoods to visit programs such as Miriam’s Kitchen, seeking Spanish-speaking homeless people who might need help.

One of the services of Neighbors’ Consejo is distributing donated clothing and blankets to the homeless in the surrounding communities. As temperatures drop, the organization steps up these efforts.

One of the services of Neighbors’ Consejo is distributing donated clothing and blankets to the homeless in the surrounding communities. As temperatures drop, the organization steps up these efforts. Photo by Hannah Morgan

“I look for tables with Latino men, and I talk with them and let them know about us,” Gonzales said. Many within the community find Neighbors’ Consejo by word of mouth.

The organization was started back in 1994, when a few Mount Pleasant residents, alarmed by the increase in homelessness and addiction in their neighborhood, decided to band together and try to address the problems.

Neighbors’ Consejo’s first home was in the basement of a local church. Its present headquarters, located at 3118 16th Street, NW, is a tiny, renovated townhouse. It houses Neighbors’ Consejo’s six-month-long addiction recovery program during which residents learn to stay sober while gaining work skills and getting help infinding housing. Inside, the brightly painted walls are decorated with cheerful, tropically inspired artwork and flyers for charities and social service agencies.

“We help every person,” said program director Milton Sanchez. But currently, the program can house only 15 residents at a time. Sanchez said he hopes that through fundraising, Neighbors’ Consejo will be able to purchase an empty house down the street and expand the rehab center.

Despite their common cultural heritage and history, Sanchez understands the differences that exist within the Hispanic immigrant community. For example, he recognizes that many homeless men from El Salvador are survivors of the country’s civil war and frequently are coping with post-traumatic stress disorder or war in- juries. Immigrants from Argentina are usually well-educated and struggling to find stable work and housing. The complexity keeps life at Neighbors’ Consejo very interesting, Sanchez said. “Every culture brings its own story. Every day is totally different.”