By Lanie Rivera
After nearly 10 years of offering counseling and educational programs to homeless men and women from the basement of a Columbia Heights church, the Hermano Pedro Day Shelter will close on March 31.
City officials have offered assurances that funding for the shelter will be shifted to other programs geared toward helping the mentally ill and homeless, but some clients of Hermano Pedro do not foresee an easy transition to other day programs.
David Jones, 61, has attended daily math and reading classes at the shelter that helped him to pursue his General Education Degree. The staff and programs at Hermano Pedro had become an important part of his life.
“These people really try to help you,” said Jones. “I’m hurting because it will close down.”
The Department of Mental Health (DMH) signed a five-year, $2 million contract with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington and Anchor Mental Health Services in 2007 to fund the shelter, located at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart.
The contract ended last November and the shelter was scheduled to close, but clients, joined by homeless advocate Eric Sheptock and other members of the grassroots group Shelter, Housing & Respectful Change (SHARC) spoke out against the termination.
Amid concerns about the potential impact of closing the shelter, particularly in winter, DMH Director Steve Baron granted the facility a four-month extension.
According to Phyllis Jones, a spokeswoman for DMH, Baron also agreed that a delay of the program’s termination would ensure a smooth transition for patients.
“We believe we have put a system in place to continue to provide needed supports while we aid individuals in transitioning to other nearby services,” she said.
To prepare for the closing, Hermano Pedro staff members have been meeting regularly with staff from DMH and two neighboring day shelters, Thrive DC and Neighbors Consejo, to discuss clients who need specific, hands-on assistance. The organizations are working to ensure that clients now receiving services at Hermano Pedro can make the transition to the other day shelters.
Despite the combined efforts of DMH and other shelters, some of Hermano Pedro’s patrons and friends are not at ease.
Cynthia Mewborn, a Street Sense vendor who speaks with familiarity about the programs at Hermano Pedro, said she does not think Thrive DC can successfully replace Hermano Pedro.
“Thrive DC just gives services to women, but men need it just as much as women do … these services need to be extended to men, and Hermano Pedro offered that,” she said. “They engage and work with you at your level.”
The shelter not only offered mental health counseling but it also served the community as a refuge in hypothermic conditions – the basement provided the homeless a place to sleep when temperatures or “wind chill” dropped below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
“It’s been a full house since the hypothermia [alerts] started,” said visitor Willis Anderson. “You can relax here, and you can’t on the street. We are all like family.”
DMH has also pledged to continue providing care for those individuals who need it.
“In addition to funding the Hermano Pedro day program, DMH supports eight full time employees on the Homeless Outreach Team who work with the chronically homeless on the streets and in the shelters to … help link them to treatment and other benefits,” Phyllis Jones commented.
Furthermore, the money that was used to fund Hermano Pedro will be allocated to strengthen other services, according to Jones. These services include financing housing subsidies, providing aid for individuals who have recently left jail, and funding Assertive Community Treatment to serve the needs of the Latino homeless population.