Clean. Safe. Polite. These are the three words that come to mind for Bonnie Pritchard.
She is assistant director of education at Central Union Mission and she is using the three words to describe the shelter’s new location at 65 Massachusetts Ave. NW.
The facility, which just reopened in the renovated Gales School building near Union Station, now offers beds to about 150 men, and has additional space to provide everything from medical and dental care to legal and educational assistance – services geared toward helping the men rebuild their lives.
It’s just the latest chapter in the story of one of the nation’s oldest social services ministries. Central Union Mission got it’s start back in 1884, helping wayward men, including many Civil War veterans, adrift on the streets of Washington, D.C. It continued to serve the poor through two world wars, and survived numerous relocations.
For the past 30 years, the shelter operated on the corner of R and 14th Streets NW, but finally sold the building in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood and embarked upon a $14 million renovation of the dilapidated but historic Gales School near Union Station
The District still owns the school building. Central Union Mission has a 40 year lease for which it will pay $1 a year. The move will allow Central Union Mission to be closer to many of the extremely poor people it aims to serve, ministry officials said.
“We had been looking for a place to relocate, and had a desire to relocate back in the city,” said Pastor James Lewis, director of ministry at the shelter. “All 130-135 people stayed with us throughout our transition. We did not drop any of our services,” he said.
These services included beds at night, breakfasts in the morning, and an 18-month addiction recovery program. Since the shelter’s 14th and R Street NW location was shuttered last summer, the services were provided at the former home of Gospel Rescue Ministries at 810 5th street.
Pastor Willliam Spence, who works with shelter’s administration, calls the new facility the “safest private male shelter.”
All beds and showers are partitioned for increased privacy, which the center did not have at its previous location. Some of the men enrolled in the Spiritual Transformation program live in suites with private bathrooms. Meals are prepared in a new kitchen twice the size of the old one.
Alumnus and supervisor Mfreke Ekanden said the larger site means more rooms to cover and more rounds to do during his day shift. There is typically one supervisor on duty that surveys the floor, making sure all guests shower, keep their belongings in labeled boxes, and stay in their rooms after lights out.
The fourth floor includes staff offices and, a medical clinic and an office where men can receive legal help. There are also classroom spaces awaiting computers and an exercise room.
When the Mission first began exploring the use of the city-owned Gales School, the plan was stalled by a lawsuit filed by civil liberties groups who asserted that such an arrangement would violate the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. They cited the Mission’s long history of requiring men to participate in religious services in exchange for help.
That practice was stopped in 2007 Mission officials explained in response.
The Mission continues to hold its daily church services at 7:30 pm. but men are also given the option of spending time in quiet contemplation.
David Thompson, who has been staying at the shelter, said he is grateful for the Mission’s religious orientation.
“The spiritual aspect of the shelter is what makes it different,” he said.
Though it just reopened, the mission is already at capacity and has needed to turn some men away already due to its first-come first served policy.
The new shelter is getting a guarded welcome far from others in the neighborhood.
Gavin Coleman, manager of The Subliner, an Irish pub on F street, said he is a bit worried about the facility’s proximity to his business.
“I try not to paint all the homeless with the same brush, but I do have some concerns.” Coleman said he feared the extra traffic to the shelter might discourage his customers. And he said he has recently had problems with panhandling near the restaurant and theft from his delivery trucks. He said a recent meeting with Pastor Lewis helped somewhat ease his mind that any further problems will be addressed.
And the manager at the tavern next door, Kelly’s Irish Times, said he does not believe Central Union Mission will change life in the neighborhood.
“The homeless have been on this block for years. I’m not stressed over it,” he said.