Homelessness in our Midst (11-23-14)
Open daily from 8 to 7, the Georgetown Ministry Center is a welcoming place. Inside, unhoused guests can shower and do laundry, take a stop-smoking class, or socialize over coffee and sandwiches. They can use computers and a phone and even receive mail. Case managers are available daily and psychiatrists and a general practitioner make weekly visits. Volunteers are the Center's mainstay, doing everything from sorting donated clothes to befriending (sometimes for hours) an unhoused guest. In winter, volunteers look for homeless people who may need the hypothermia van. "I've never heard a volunteer who didn't say 'this was an amazing experince,' " said Stern.
The majority of D.C. 's chronically homeless population are persons who have a mental illness. "The biggest challenge is getting people to treatment," Stern said. "I used to go out at 11 p.m. to remind people of their appointments the next day. I often had to remind them again in the morning."" added Cohen" "It's especially difficult when people with mental illness lack the insight to know they need treatment."
Like other cities in the U.S., D.C. allows hospitalization for persons with severe mental illness only if they're considered dangerous. "It's heartbreaking to see a person committed involuntarily," said Cohen, ""but the patient invariably welcomes help after a few weeks." The Treatment Advocacy Center recommends hospitalization for at least one month or a caseworker-managed discharge plan for one year. A lasting solution? Said Stern: "The answer is getting people to aggressively intervene early."
Gunther Stern continues to walk the streets of Georgetown to find and help unhoused persons, as he has done for 30 years. What has kept him from burning out? "Eight hours sleep, lots of exercise, and a balanced diet," he told Adult Ed. "Having attention deficit disorder also helps!"