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Homeless center reopens after extensive renovation

By Jackie Zubrzycki...Current Correspondent...

Roy Witherspoon tells a story about a homeless man he met several years ago. He greeted the man every day for six weeks without receiving a response. And then, one day, the man spoke: “I’ve been watching you every day,” he said.

The man thanked Witherspoon for acknowledging him. Being homeless, he said, is usually the equivalent of being invisible.

Georgetown Ministry Center, the homeless are anything but invisible. The center, which provides services to the neighborhood’s homeless population, reopened in mid-July after a six-week renovation. Witherspoon, the center’s director of outreach, and other members of the staff, board and community came out to celebrate at an open house July 14.

The new Georgetown Ministry Center is in the same space -- accessible through the alley entrance of Grace Episcopal Church on Wisconsin Avenue -- but offers improved resources. It now features a row of new Mac desktop computers, an expanded and refurbished social and kitchen area, a new shower and bathroom, a private space for physician visits and a laundry room. The nonprofit also offers the area’s homeless a place to take care of financial needs, receive assistance with medication and mail and, when possible, find pathways to permanent housing.

The center’s hours have also expanded. While it was previously open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, the addition of a new staff member will allow it to operate seven days a week: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekends.

The Georgetown Ministry Center will also begin to use the Clubhouse Model for Psychosocial Rehabilitation, which means that those served are known now as “members” rather than “clients” and encouraged, but not required, to take ownership in some of center’s functioning -- they might participate in a social meeting, help clean or take charge of the shower sign-up list.

“Like everything we do, it’s all about empowerment, respect, dignity and making the homeless feel like they’re not second-class citizens,” said executive director Gunther Stern.

Anyone can become a member of the center, and non-members can use any of its services except the computers.

The day of the evening open house, the center reopened to the homeless in the morning. Several members praised the redesign. Judy, a woman who frequently uses the center’s services, pointed out the “durable” furniture and said that “everybody’s been very happy.” Steven, another regular visitor to the center, complimented the new computers and wireless.

Chloe Hiyu, an architect from HOK who helped design the new center, said her team worked with director Stern to understand how the space would be used. “We wanted to create a soothing and calm atmosphere,” Hiyu said at the reopening.

Hiyu and a group from HOK had taken on the redesign as a pro bono project.

The clubhouse model seemed to be well-received, as well. Several employees reported that three or four potential members had offered to stay after closing on the opening day to help clean and prepare the center for the open house.

Members also suggested that the Georgetown Ministry Center might offer legal services or an open mic for talented members, and have suggested creating social or support groups. Stephanie Chan, the center’s newest employee, said they’re hoping to create a stronger community.

The clubhouse model also means the center is more open to feedback from members about some of its policies. For instance, showers and laundry will be available on a first-come, first-served basis, replacing a previous sign-up sheet. Witherspoon, the outreach director, said staff would take members’ comments on how the systems are working.

Several factors draw those in need to Georgetown, Witherspoon said: For one, the affluence of the neighborhood means that “people might think they can get better services here.” Also, Georgetown houses a number of spots like bridges and parks where homeless people can be out of the way, he said.

The homeless population on the streets has ebbs and flows -- for instance, the first sunny day after a gray spell in winter often finds many on the street -- but there has been a consistent need for Georgetown Ministry Center’s services, Stern said. Staff members also regularly go out into the community to reach out to those who do not come to the shelter.

As part of the changes, the center’s administrative offices have also relocated, moving from an office across the street to space in Grace Church, which brings staff closer to the members.

The center is supported by numerous Georgetown organizations and some grants and donations, and the board and community throw several fundraisers over the course of the year.

Judy, who was present for the open house, said Georgetown Ministry Center plays an important role for the city’s homeless. Noting how helpful Stern and Witherspoon are, she added that she planned to get to the center early the next day.

“At this place, we do acknowledge each other,” she said.

This article appears in the July 28 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.