First Person: Route 1 Day Center Helps Homeless, But Needs New Home of its Own
Center will need a new facility when owners of the building begin redevelopment.
There was quite a bit of activity when I visited the Route 1 Day Center mission in Jessup, just north of Route 32. People were coming and going, some putting full plastic bags in trunks of cars. People were standing or crouching near the entrance, having a smoke or just enjoying the gorgeous fall weather. Inside was a beehive of activity in the halls, offices, dining rooms and dispensary.
I dropped off my donations of toiletries and socks and asked to whom I could speak for more information about the Day Center. I was directed to see Doug, a tall man with longish gray hair and gray mustache who assists in directing the Center.
When I introduced myself, he greeted me courteously, but he first seemed a bit skeptical about my intentions.
Was he thinking that I was there to dig up some sensationalist stories about the homeless people served by the mission? Was I looking for some local controversy about its presence there on Route 1? Was it just idle curiosity?
I tried to bolster my credibility my mentioning my own past involvements with homeless shelters and with prison ministries, but I sensed a continuing wariness. I asked if I could take some photos, assuring him that I would respect the confidentiality of the clients. After showing him the photos I had taken, I deleted any he thought would possibly reveal the identity of any of the guests.
Doug also introduced me to the director, Joe Willmot, who although cordial, also displayed the same wariness. Perhaps he often encounters unsympathetic attitudes about the homeless, whom many of us see as the most abject dregs of society. For people like Joe and Doug, and the many volunteers who serve at the day center, these people are human beings deserving of care and respect.
As Joe explained, substance abuse or mental illness (or both together) are by far the most common causes of homelessness. Most people who end up sleeping on the streets or the woods have gone through a long downward spiral of reversals in health, employment, and relationships.
As if to corroborate this statement, a man sitting nearby paused in his meal to narrate a long story of exactly such misfortunes. There was something in his rather obsessive manner of speaking that suggested "personality disorder" – a loose catch-all phrase to describe people who lack fundamental social skills; this too is another condition that leads to homelessness.
The Day Center was launched in July of 2008 after a survey conducted in 2007 revealed that along the Route 1 corridor, some 30 to 50 people were living without shelter (the number has since grown to some 70 or 80 people). In December of 2007, a group of advocates for the homeless set out to learn more about this group of people and how to address their needs. They started by simply going out to find them in streets, cars, vans, and makeshift camps and bringing them food. From there, the project grew in scope, with more volunteers and more food deliveries. Eventually, with the support of local churches, county government, and charitable foundations, the Route 1 facility was opened.
The Center now has two vans that pick up the homeless at various sites a couple of times in the morning and then returns them later in the afternoon. At the center, homeless people can receive meals, showers, laundry, clothing, internet and phone access, a mailing address, some basic medical services (provided by a volunteer doctor and nurse), and referrals to social services –there is even a volunteer barber, an acupuncturist, and an attorney who provides some legal consultation.
There are only three part-time paid staff members –all other services are provided by volunteers from some 14 different religious and charitable organizations who, along with their duties, provide caring social interaction with people who are mostly rejected or ignored by the rest of us.
The Center must eventually find a new facility. The owners of the property are allowing them to use it for the time being, because they aren't able to develop during these poor economic conditions. But when the economy improves, the building will be demolished and replaced by a new motel built in accordance with the county's revitalization plans for the Route 1 corridor. The County is supportively working with the directors of the Center to find a new facility.
Before I left, Joe pointed out an ornate brass bell hanging on the wall, used to announce the departure times of the van. It was from a Belgian monastery. The inscription read, "Qui Me Tangit Vocem Me Audit" – he who touches me hears my voice. The voices of the homeless are certainly heard in the caring touches provided at the Route 1 Day Center Mission.
The Center is always looking for more volunteers as well as donations of food and clothing. More information is available by calling 301-776-9900 or e-mailing Anne Dunn at email@example.com.