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February 21, 2017

It was a bitterly cold night in December, and Maddie was concerned about the man in the orange sleeping bag. He had shed his hat and gloves and seemed to be struggling to respond to her queries. She withdrew with our team to a safe distance and reviewed the options.

Members of the Hypothermia Outreach Team check in with each other after an encounter with someone sleeping outside.

Ideally, the man — whose speech was slurred and who seemed to have trouble focusing — would have accepted a ride from the District’s shelter hotline vans, but Maddie was unable to get a clear answer from him. Should the team call the hotline anyway? Skip the hotline and call 911? We decided to call the hotline and give them a description and location. It was going to be a long night, and there were a lot more people out on the street to check on.

Maddie is a Hypothermia Outreach Team (HOT) leader. HOT, a collaboration between Georgetown University’s Center for Social Justice (CSJ) and Georgetown Ministry Center, trains and organizes members of the Georgetown University community to perform outreach on the coldest nights of the year. Volunteers check in on people on the street, connect those who are willing to free transportation to shelter, and assess hypothermia risk. HOT members also distribute cold weather gear like hats, scarves, gloves, socks, hand warmers, and sometimes blankets or food.

Hypothermia Outreach Team leaders plan their routes before heading out for the night.

Although a call to the hypothermia van was the most serious intervention we made on that night in December, Maddie remembers one night when her team had to call 911. “That was really impactful for me,” she says. “If we hadn’t run into that guy, would someone else have called? Would he have made it through the night?”

A sophomore in Georgetown’s pre-med program, Maddie has been volunteering with HOT since her freshman year. She appreciates the opportunity to be in direct service “right in our backyard” in Georgetown, where the homeless population can sometimes be hidden from view. After a year of consistent volunteering through CSJ and GMC, Maddie says she appreciates that she now recognizes people on the streets and in the day center.

This year, more than 250 students, staff, and faculty have been trained as HOT members. The trainings are conducted by Melissa Bernard, a Jesuit Volunteer who works for the CSJ and Campus Ministry at Georgetown University, and also serves as GMC’s volunteer coordinator. Participants learn the basics of outreach, signs and symptoms of hypothermia, and information about Georgetown Ministry Center.

Melissa Bernard leads a Hypothermia Outreach Team training at Georgetown University

Ultimately, it doesn’t take special training to care for our neighbors experiencing homelessness. “Anybody can save a life just by being aware of the circumstances,” says Gunther Stern, Executive Director of Georgetown Ministry Center. Just a few weeks ago, Gunther was on street outreach with Dr. Ron Koshes, one of GMC’s consulting psychiatrists. They were near Washington Circle when they spotted a solitary figure sitting on a bench with a gray blanket draped over him. When Dr. Koshes’ verbal queries went unanswered, Gunther says he “did something I counsel against. I reached out and touched him.” The man stirred and said he was OK, but he was visibly shivering. “That’s actually a good sign in terms of hypothermia,” Gunther says. “It’s the first stage. Not generally serious but in this case, given that this person didn’t seem to have shelter, we were concerned.” When it became clear that this individual couldn’t stand, Gunther called 911 and the pair waited for a fire engine to show up. It was a simple bit of extra effort for Gunther and Ron, but they very well might have saved a life.

Anybody can save a life. Whether it’s just by being aware, or by supporting Georgetown Ministry Center’s medical outreach and drop-in center, we can help make sure that nobody has to suffer alone on our streets — even on the coldest nights.

— David Finnegan-Hosey

Want to support the collaboration between Georgetown Ministry Center and the Center for Social Justice at Georgetown University? Check out the Georgetown 5k Race Against Homelessness!

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December 19, 2016

Here is an update about one of our GMC guests from our ED Gunther Stern:

“You have seen him out there pushing his carts — yes, carts. Two, sometimes three carts filled with junk. One person’s junk is another person’s treasures. He has been out here on the streets of Georgetown for 30 years. We really didn’t have much hope for him moving off the street but Friday we were treated to a video of him and his case worker from Metropolitan Family Services celebrating the acquisition of his new apartment. He was so excited. Now the work begins to get him comfortable moving into the place.”

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December 8, 2016

I recently found myself disagreeing with one of GMC’s doctors. She talked about the impact of poverty in homelessness. “Wait a minute” I stammered, “homelessness is all about mental illness and disability” and I began talking in circles. Although I feel strongly that most of the people I see on the street are homeless because of faulty mental processes and therefore are unable to fit successfully into society, I didn’t have much evidence other than the anecdotes of my work over the last 30 years.

It is important to remember that we work with a unique subset of people who are homeless: people who live on the street. And many of the people we work with have been on the street for years. We almost never see families.

There is a shortage of good literature on the prevalence of mental illness among people who are homeless. Good data and good research involving mental illness starts with definition. What is mental illness? Do you include personality disorders? Traumatic brain injuries and developmental disabilities such as autism? These are all realities for the people we see.

The second problem is diagnosis. Even well-trained professionals disagree on diagnoses. It takes a long time to do an effective evaluation and even then many people don’t want to share their behavioral flaws for many different and complicated reasons. Additionally, while much of psychiatry has been systematized in a way that gives good guidance to diagnosticians, it is still very complicated.

Often people have more than one set of symptoms or have symptoms that change from day to day – as in borderline personality disorder. Also symptoms of bipolar disorder can mimic the psychosis of depression or schizophrenia.

The third problem is that half of all people with serious mental illness don’t think they have a brain disorder. They have a condition known as anosognosia which blocks insight into their own dysfunction. They deny symptoms and avoid mental health practitioners.

In the end, it is my observation that most of the people I see on the street have conditions that limit their ability to function in society. Sometimes the symptoms are obvious such as yelling at nobody in particular as they walk down the middle of the street. For most it is not so evident, even to the trained observer. It might take months of interactions before the observer notices an unusual preoccupation with “the Church,” for instance, or an unwillingness to enter buildings of any type.

We also hear about substance abuse as a leading cause of homelessness, but again from my observations over the years (except during the crack epidemic), I rarely meet a substance abuser in which I don’t find an underlying brain disorder. In fact, research has shown that people with certain disorders of the brain are much more likely to abuse substances.

Many people experience substance abuse and brain disorders without becoming homeless. However, most homeless people are on the street because of an untreated or poorly treated (sometimes untreatable) disorder of thought and a lack of supportive services. We can do better. I have no doubt that poverty contributes to homelessness, but I don’t think that poverty, in itself, is a significant cause of urban homelessness as we know it in the United States.

―Gunther Stern

$50/month provides 10 GMC guests with access to our two psychiatrists and general practitioner each year. By serving clients who do not have access to basic medical care and psychiatric treatment, we help them address the underlying issues that may cause their homelessness. Find out more about how you can help!

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December 7, 2016

“We found her.”

Gunther sounded tired, but his voice carried a quiet note of victory as he entered the office one Tuesday afternoon. Three hours earlier, he’d set out, accompanied by Adriana, an outreach worker from Miriam’s Kitchen, with a seemingly simple mission: find Ellen. (The names of our guests have been changed to protect their identities.) Ellen is likely eligible to receive supplemental security income (SSI). When combined with other forms of assistance, supplemental income can make a big difference in helping our guests get off the streets and into housing.

The only challenge? Ellen had to agree to the arrangement and sign paperwork. First, they had to find her. However, Ellen has a reputation – “almost legendary,” according to Gunther – for being reclusive.

Gunther Stern on street outreach

The search began at 27th and K streets, where Gunther last saw Ellen. She wasn’t around, but a homeless man there confirmed he recently saw her. The next stop was Arlington, one of her usual spots. Crossing the Key Bridge, a woman Gunther knew pointed to the place where Ellen often sleeps: “But I haven’t seen her in awhile.” And so it went for the next several encounters: “Yeah,” a homeless person would affirm, “I sometimes see her around here. But she hasn’t been around in awhile.”

A visit to a homeless services center in Arlington didn’t turn up any more substantive leads, so it was back across the bridge and up the hill to the Georgetown Library. There, finally, the stalwart outreach team had a stroke of luck. When Gunther told two regulars, Mike and John, who he was looking for, John implored: “Gunther, you gotta do something for Ellen.” Gunther gave them his phone number, and continued searching. It wasn’t long before the phone rang. John was on the line: “She’s in Rose Park.”

Once at Rose Park, Gunther spotted her on a bench at the far end of the park. “What you have to know about Ellen,” Gunther shared later, “is how reclusive she can be. Everyone who knows her knows you won’t get more than a couple of words out of her.” So he was pleasantly surprised when she was willing to engage with Adriana and sign the SSI paperwork. At the end of the day Gunther checked his phone to see how far he’d walked that day. Including a trip downtown for a mental health advocacy meeting, he’d traveled 11.5 miles by foot. He estimates that 8 of those miles were dedicated to searching for Ellen.

From the perspective of moving people into permanent housing, signing SSI paperwork might look like a small win. But from the standpoint of an individual for whom personal connections and relationships are a challenge, such a hurdle represents an enormous victory. It takes years of relationship building, hours of conversation, and sometimes miles of walking in a day to get there. For Ellen, it took a network of people willing to speak out for her and a level of personal resilience and courage to take these steps. For all of us at GMC, the journey to small successes can be a long one. But whether it’s 10 miles or 10 years, no journey happens without the first step. What next step can you take to walk with our guests on their journeys home?

―David Finnegan-Hosey

Want to take the next step with us? Find out how you can help!

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December 5, 2016

While temperatures in the sixties made it hard for us to believe it was time for the winter shelter to open, about two dozen staff, volunteers, and shelter residents packed into GMC’s day center on November 4 for a shelter training session. After an afternoon of safety training, the group shared a meal, reviewed important policies, and prepared for a successful winter shelter season.

GMC staff emphasized the importance not only of shelter but of building community and an environment of mutual respect. GMC’s Case Manager, Sabrina Burrell, asked everyone to share their name and something they liked about themselves. We heard about one resident’s guitar skills and another’s love of learning.

The opening of the shelter itself took place at Christ Church Georgetown on November 6. With help from GMC staff, our residents set up cots and checked in with each other. This year marks the 26th year of the program, in cooperation with Georgetown congregations who open their doors to provide safe, warm shelter for 10 residents from November through March. Residents, staff, and volunteers shared a delicious and hearty meal, made by Christ Church youth. Conversation flowed over pasta carbonara, salad, bread, and fresh-baked brownies. After dinner, our residents settled in for the night. The Winter Shelter is officially open, and residents, volunteers, and staff have already begun the deeper work of forming a community.

Interested in helping? Contact Sabrina Burrell. We’re thrilled to have new volunteers to prepare meals, eat with guests, or spend the night.

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