Columbia residents give food, clothing to the needy in D.C.

December 21, 1992|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

Attired in crimson winter coats, scotch plaid skirts and handsome suits, the faithful of St. John's Protestant Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., were leaving their 11 a.m. service yesterday as John Metzler opened the doors to his van across the street.

Within minutes a swarm of bedraggled men, all apparently homeless, hustled from the benches of Lafayette Park to the open doors of the van.

They beamed in delight as Mr. Metzler and several fellow Columbia residents handed out brown paper bags with sandwiches and apples, and filled foam cups to the brim with vegetable and beef-stock soup made by Steck and Diane Brink, two of the volunteers.

Columbia residents Spence Gulick and Ruth Lefler dispensed hot chocolate to the crowd of about 60. It was all gone within minutes.

For the past three years, Mr. Metzler and his wife, Dotty, have collected holiday donations at their Columbia nursery.

On selected Sundays in December and January, the Metzlers and Brinks, along with any volunteers they can round up, travel to areas of Baltimore and Washington frequented by the homeless. For Sunday's effort, Sue Castonguay and 10 neighborhood children made sandwiches for the 60 lunch bags.

As the men rummaged through the clothing -- which included shoes, boots, gloves, pants, sweaters and lots of coats -- they debated the attributes of many of the items, sounding no different from Christmas shoppers at a holiday sale.

"This is a raw day to be outside. Getting some warm food like this gives a man a kind of hope, you know. Maybe next someone will come along and offer me a job," said Tommy Bennett, 36, as he gulped down his second cup of the hot food.

Mr. Bennett is no stranger to Lafayette Park, which is across the street from the White House. He's been homeless for two years, he said, and has spent more than a few days whiling the time away in the park.

Once the food had vanished, Mr. Bennett and the other men turned their attention to the two vans, chock-full of winter clothing, all of it donated for the goodwill effort.

Nary a one of the St. John's service goers gave the hubbub around the van as much as a cursory look. They hustled quickly past the crowd to their cars.

The homeless men gathering around the van paid the well-dressed church goers no mind, either. They were happy for the surprise visit from the Columbia residents.

Said Mr. Bennett, "A lot of groups come here like this. Most of them are church groups. They bring food and clothes; couple times a week we see this. The food and clothes are good. We need that. But the main thing I'd like is a good job."

Robert Johnson-el, 33 and homeless the past seven months, agreed.

"This is short-term, temporary help. It's good to have it. But what's really needed is someone to come down here and give these people a job workshop," he said as he looked through a large box full of winter coats hoping to find one that would fit his strapping frame. Nothing seemed to fit.

"That's OK," he said. "I'm in a shelter at night. You wouldn't believe where a lot of these guys spend the night; under bridges and on heat vents."

Mr. Gulick, one of the volunteers helping the Metzlers, said the most moving moment in the day for him was when one of the homeless men walked off with his own winter coat, thinking it one of donated items, and then returned it.

"Someone told him it was mine and he came right up to me, said he was sorry for the mistake. That really hit me."

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