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Meals create community for homeless women


“It’s the best thing since sliced bread. It’s better than going home,” said Connie “Teddie” Flemmings, sitting with relatives around a table in the warm and bustling First Congregational United Church of Christ basement in downtown Washington. She was referring to the air filled with the smell of fried chicken and with the voices of women and children enjoying a hot Sunday dinner after a heated game of bingo.

The 22-year-old’s quip carries extra weight here. Like most of the women and families who gather at the Dinner Program for Homeless Women, she has no home to go to when the meal is over on a frigid January night. Tonight’s gathering with friend Yvonne Gillis, cousin Donita Covington and her three children was the closest thing to home Flemmings would experience that week.

Highlight of the week

Two blocks east, latest-model SUVs search for parking in the newly gentrified neighborhood around Washington’s MCI Center sports arena. But here, three hours of bingo, dinner and companionship on a Sunday night are the highlight of a week of struggle for 80 women and children. Six days a week, the nonprofit program offers breakfast for nearly 300 homeless people. Each weeknight, 75 to 90 homeless women and children come for dinner.

In addition to dinner, the center doles out toiletries, telephone use, legal assistance, employment training, housing assistance, case management, even a computer workshop. Husbands and boyfriends wait outside -- the women say they feel bad for them, but the city offers many more feeding options for men than for women and children.

“Dinner Program is great because they give us emotional support, clothes, Band-Aids and items for our personal needs. Women have a lot of personal needs,” Flemmings laughed while 2-year-old Dominic Covington napped in her lap. Ronald, 10, and Corey, 3, picked quietly at the last of the green beans and mashed potatoes on their plates.

“It’s a good place for kids if some people would learn how to act,” said their mother, Donita Covington, Flemmings’ cousin. “Some of the actions of these women are not good role models for the children. But it’s a good place. Tonight at the bingo table they had prizes for the children. Everybody got a gift.”

“The food’s OK,” said Donna Young, a soft-spoken 20-year-old who lives in a shelter on Massachusetts Avenue. She is working on her high school equivalency diploma, answering the phones at Papa John’s Pizza and trying to get her year-old son, James, out of foster care.

“It is hard for the homeless to focus. It can take them a whole day to do one thing. So this is a respite. It’s only for women. It’s a community center,” said Paula Dyan, who has worked as a case manager here for the past eight months.

The 23-year-old Dinner Program for Homeless Women, with the slogan “Building Community One Meal at a Time,” does have the feel of a community center. Staff and visitors have an easy relationship, though occasional reprimands were made for harsh words or a rising noise level as the night’s last bingo game, with its much-coveted $5 cash prize, drew to a close. On this night, someone vandalized cars in the church’s parking lot with nail polish. Nevertheless, it’s the women here that keep the program’s executive director, Kier Maxwell, coming back. In other words, it’s community.

Complex puzzle of poverty

“I think this program is crucial. For places to eat in the evening, there’s not many other choices,” said Maxwell, a young African-American woman currently completing her doctorate in marriage and family therapy. “We’ve been here since 1979 -- that’s part of our track record of showing the need. Jointly, with Zacchaeus Kitchen’s breakfast program, we served 94,000 meals last year. So the need is there.”

For the women at dinner tonight, hunger is only one piece of a complex puzzle of poverty that can include domestic violence, drug abuse, mental illness or lack of affordable housing, Maxwell said.

“There needs to be more. Not so much food, but there is no place for these women to be,” she said. “They might be working at McDonald’s but they can’t afford D.C. housing. We need more affordable housing.”

Flemmings, who has been homeless for about a year, slept under the Union Labor Lights Building, home to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, for five months. Then she moved to the Open Door Shelter for Women, a collection of dilapidated trailers built as emergency shelter by the city more than a decade ago. About 70 percent of the women at dinner tonight make the 11-block walk -- or, in winter, take the program’s van -- back to that shelter after dinner.

Flemmings has her own ideas about what’s needed. “The Dinner Program is a lot of help for the ones having a hard time right now. It’s really not easy to be in the shelter. It’s not easy to come down to the dinner program because a lot of people don’t want to swallow their pride,” she said. “But I always say, hey, sometimes you got to do what you got to do to survive, even if you have to swallow your pride.”

On this bitter winter evening, swallowing some hot fried chicken and green beans with mashed potatoes and gravy didn’t hurt either.

Ian Jones is a freelance writer living in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, February 15, 2002