BY HEATHER WRIGHT — During the summer of 2015, Rev. Nathan Hill watched as police escorted a homeless man out of a library for taking off his socks. The reverend’s University Christian Church had been hosting Warm Nights and Safe Haven programs for the homeless, but Hill wondered where their guests went when they left the premises in the morning.
Hill noticed that some homeless people spent time at the library, which was usually very accommodating. But when this particular man removed his socks, other patrons complained, and the situation escalated. Hill said he had an idea: “There needs to be a place … where they can sit, take off their socks [and] do whatever it is. They need a place.”
Furthermore, Hill said he had the conviction that “it should be a church. The church should be a place where you don’t get kicked out if you need to take off your socks.” About a week later, he heard Donny Phillips, Warm Nights shelter manager with Community Crisis Services, Inc., say that Prince George’s County needed a place for the homeless to go during the day. Hill started to talk to Phillips about starting a day center at University Christian for homeless and low-income individuals.
Hill, Phillips and several others toured Howard County’s Day Resource Center and talked to people at food programs, such as First United Methodist of Hyattsville’s Community Café, to figure out what services could and should be provided. Hill talked to other churches that were part of Congregations United for Compassion and Empowerment, a group of Route 1 Corridor churches, to join them in starting the day center. After a year of planning, PG Plaza Day Center opened on Oct. 4, 2016, at University Christian. They celebrated their first anniversary at the day center on Thursday, Oct. 5.
PG Plaza Day Center’s Facebook page describes the center as “a welcoming, compassionate space for homeless neighbors and others in need.” Hill said that it was important for the center to have a “non-anxious” feel. To that end, participants sign up for a shower or laundry services and can then relax without having to wait in a line. A volunteer lets them know when it’s their turn.
The center and is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 to 6 p.m. and provides a meal, coffee, shower and laundry services, charging outlets, toiletries, socks and underwear, space to relax and spiritual support. Other ongoing services include social work case management and mental health assessments and support through QCI Behavioral Health. Some services are provided on an intermittent basis. For example, ten guests were able to attend a free dental clinic held in September at the University of Maryland (UMD). Through the the county’s Department of Social Services, the center was able to provide 75 Hair Cuttery vouchers to guests for haircuts.
Hill estimated that in its first year, the center served 250 individuals, averaging 30 to 40 a day. Phillips, who is the day center’s coordinator, estimated that between 70 to 80 people are “semi-regular” at the center. Daily attendance usually peaks at 2 p.m., when lunch is served.
Phillips estimated that half of the people who come to the center are homeless and half are marginalized and on the verge of homelessness. “Brian,” a 72-year-old veteran, said he had been living out of his car for about a year when he started coming to the center. Center staff were eventually able to connect him to the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program. He said he moved into his own apartment on Aug. 29 — a date he recalls precisely and proudly. Brian continues to come to the center “to see some of my friends, get a good lunch, [and] stay in touch with people. If I find any resources they can use, I let them know.” He added, “The volunteers are outstanding, simply outstanding.”
Larry McKinney said he heard about the center through Community Café. Center staff helped him attain housing through Section 8, and he moved into his own apartment on May 2; like Brian, he recalls the exact move-in date. McKinney said he likes to help out at the center when he can, and he likes the people, the pastor and “sometimes” the food. He was also a recipient of dental services through the UMD dental clinic.
Dwayne Walton, who says he is homeless and has been for a long time, said of the center,“It’s a blessing. It is a blessing,” because it provided showers, meals and laundry, and is “someplace you can hang out.” He added, “Because what if it wasn’t here?”
In the future, and if they had a bigger budget, Hill would like to the center to have more than one shower and washer and dryer. He would also like to add Saturdays to the schedule. Phillips said this past year’s experience enabled them to figure out what other services to put in place. For example, the center is connecting with a team of lawyers to provide pro bono expungement and bankruptcy services, and is partnering with So Others Might Eat to provide employment training. Hill said that the center’s clients each need something different: “There’s not this one-size-fits-all.”
Hill described the first year as an “incredible” experience and was especially proud of several success stories, including Brian’s. Hill said that staff also helped an individual with serious eye issues attain eye surgery and glasses. “Steve,” a guest with serious hip problems, kept putting off surgery but, with staff encouragement, had the needed surgery, and is now recovering with the support of family members.
Steve was actually one of the first “scouts” from the homeless community to try out the center and its newly renovated shower, and he let Hill know they were on right track. Because of his hip issues, Steve found it difficult and painful to maneuver in tight spaces. After using the spacious easy-access shower, he told Hill, “Oh, I feel like a real human being again.” Hill added, “And I just said, ‘That’s it. That’s it. That’s what we’re about.’”
PG Plaza Day Center is located at University Christian Church, 6800 Adelphi Road. For more information about the center, visit www.congregationsunited.org/daycenter.