Fr. McKenna's Center

by Julie Bourbon
photos by Leslie Kossoff

A place in Washington, D.C., that the homeless call home
honors founder Fr. Horace McKenna, SJ,
by continuing his work

Antwan Brown and Ralph Hall working

Antwan Brown and Ralph Hall sort through pants donated to the McKenna Centerís clothing exchange, one of many programs meant to ease the lives of homeless men in Washington, D.C.

On a Wednesday morning, the conversation has turned to the war in Iraq. Itís a lively one, as debates on this subject tend to be. The prevailing sentiment among the dozen or so men seems to be against the war. One, who sits with his back to the others, is working on a computer. He does not join the debate but periodically shouts out, in his best imitation of Bill Clinton, "I did not have sex with that woman!" This outburst is met with laughter at first, then mostly ignored. His is the only white face among the men today. Spring is in the air and everyone is feeling good, waiting for their 11 oíclock support meeting, then lunch.

These are some of the men of the Fr. McKenna Center at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church on Eye Street in Washington, D.C. About 20 will come through the drop-in center today, some to talk, some to use the phone, some just to have a quiet place to think and rest for a few hours. An unusually long, cold winter has finally ended, and their numbers will drop off through the warm months. Itís easier to be homeless when itís warm outside, or so they say. All of the men must attend the support meeting if they intend to stay for lunch, most often a hot meat-and-potatoes dish with dessert and a soft drink. The meeting is akin to an AA meeting; the men share stories of battles with drugs, homelessness, and depression and gain support and encouragement from a community of folks facing the same temptations and problems.

Ron Rogers preparing lunch

McKenna staffer Ronald Rogers prepares a hot lunch for the centerís guests in the lower level of St. Aloysius Church.

It is noisy and bright in the centerís five rooms, and it feels very much like a parish hall. Located in the basement of St. Alís, thatís more or less what it is. On Sundays the center is used for religious ed classes or as a nursery. Every summer, the walls are the canvas for a new volunteer high school groupís artworkóa pastoral scene here, a Bible passage thereóand bare space is running out.

The late, beloved Jesuit Fr. Horace McKenna founded this place in 1968 as a Saint Vincent de Paul center, but the name was changed after his death in 1982 (McKenna would never have tolerated such homage in his lifetime). The mission remains the same, however: to be a community in solidarity with the poor and the marginalized.

The center distributes bags of food Monday through Thursday, al-most twenty per day in the wintertime, other times more like seven or eight. Of the 250 or so households receiving such food assistance, about 80 percent are regulars. The center also distributes clothing and holiday baskets and, when funds are available, emergency help for those in need of money for rent or utilities.

Showers and computer time

With a budget of $350,000 to $400,000 a year, the McKenna Center relies heavily on individual contributions, grants, and donations from Jesuit communities, parishioners from Holy Trinity at Georgetown and St. Aloysius, Gonzaga College High School, and some public funding. They have four full-time staff and many volunteers.

The center offers an array of important services to the neighborhood and to men just passing through. On weekdays it is a drop-in center, providing showers, washing machines, informal counseling, computer and phone time, art and creative writing opportunities, help with job searches (the center serves as the often-critical mailing address) and daily support groups. As opposed to other shelters, the men can stay and relax from 8 in the morning to 1 in the afternoon every day.

During winter, the center operates as an emergency hypothermia shelter, taking in up to 25 men. The centerís focus on men is due partly to statistics: in this area homeless men outnumber women ten to one, and the D.C. area does offer a number of drop-in and stay-over facilities for women, who are much more likely than men to be accompanied by children. But itís also a function of the facilityís setup: sleeping arrangements and washroom and shower facilities in this old structure preclude a mix of men and women.

Relaxing with a game of chess Lunch time at the Center

McKenna Center offers its guests the chance to take a shower, do laundry, get help with job searches and, especially important, take a break from the rigors of life on the streets. Lunch comes daily right after the 11 oíclock meeting, at which men gather for mutual support.

The McKenna Center is also a transitional shelter for a smaller, largely self-selecting group. Each year, as many as 30 men apply for spots in its community living program; the eight to ten who are accepted commit to finding jobs and saving money to move toward independent living. The center chooses those with the greatest chance of moving up and out; the success rate is about 50 percent. Many more would probably apply were it not for the drug test to get into the program and random drug testing throughout.

Book cover

Horace: Priest of the Poor, by John S. Monagan, tells the story of Horace McKenna (1899Ė1982), a Fordham Prep grad who entered the Society in 1916, following in the footsteps of his brother Bill, who entered in 1914.

For years he worked at St. Peter Claver Church in St. Maryís County in Maryland as a tireless advocate for the many poor African-American farmers in the area. He founded a credit union, set up a co-op that bought a tractor to rent out, and lobbied the Rural Electrification Agency to get electricity into the area.

Fr Horace McKenna, SJWhen he moved to St. Aloysius Church in Washington, D.C., in 1953 he continued the same mix of pastoral and social work (in his mind he had simply changed from a "bushwhacker" to an "alleywhacker"). One day heíd give someone $11 to stave off eviction, the next he'd escort a senator and the press to tour his neighborhood, and the next meet with academicians to develop sociological studies of inner-city problems.

"He was a stubborn old goat, but if he wasn't a saint, I donít know who was," said one of McKennaís superiors. (Georgetown University Press 1985)

Staying in touch

"We keep guys who have been in that program on radar," says Paul Magno, McKenna Centerís director, who tries to stay in contact with them, likening himself to the Verizon phone guy who calls up periodically and asks, "Can you hear me now?"

Magno has been there since 1997. A Georgetown grad (í78), he long ago internalized the Ignatian ideals that underpins the center. "The hard-core street folk donít like how they get treated at shelters," says Magno, explaining the reluctance that some homeless men feel about shelters, a reluctance the average person with a roof overhead does not easily understand. "We try to treat them differently."

Same demons

In the struggle to help people who have fallen on hard times, it is a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same, Magno says. In McKennaís time, they were called derelicts or bums; now called the homeless, they still often fall victim to the same demons: alcohol, drugs, mental illness, street crime. "Drug addiction is probably much more pernicious than it was generations ago," he says. "In that respect itís tougher."

Situated on the edge of Northwest D.C., the McKenna Center is in a neighborhood where 90 percent of the population lives below the poverty level, and most have no more than a GED. Of one regular client, Magno says, "She does everything a good citizen is supposed to do except be prosperous. This neighborhood is full of people who are destitute."

Working at the front desk

"They helped me get my own place, get up on my feet," says James Nesbitt, once a recipient of the centerís services, now working there answering the phone and working the front desk. He describes the changes heís seen in the lives of other McKenna guests as "slow miracles."

Hard-fought successes

James Nesbitt, 32, was once one of the centerís guests through the winter. (In keeping with the precedent set by McKenna himself, the staff uses the word "guest" rather than "client" because, as Fr. McKenna said, there are no clients in the house of the Lord.) Formerly homeless, Nesbitt first came to the McKenna Center five years ago. He now works there part-time, answering phones and working the front desk.

"They helped me get my own place, get up on my feet," says Nesbitt, tall, bearded, and imposing, but with a babyish face a cigarette canít quite disguise. Standing outside the center, he greets passersby and reflects on the change the center has wrought in his life. "It helped me become more than an average Joe Blow doing nothing," he says. "Our motto is slow miracles—things donít happen overnight."

Thomas Quarels, a 56-year-old Vietnam vet who recently returned to the center to get his bearings back, nods in agreement. He suffers from depression and what he terms a lack of spirituality; he volunteers in the kitchen, hoping to end up on staff. Grey-haired and be-spectacled, he smokes and leans against the outside wall, waiting for the 11 oíclock meeting to begin.

"Thatís food for me," he says of the group. "To me, this is like a safety net. A place where I can come to get myself reestablished." He has seven grown children and feels that for the first time he is doing something to take care of himself, for himself. He remembers growing up in the neighborhood, talking to Fr. McKenna as a young man just back from the war. "He told me everybody needs somebody," Quarels says softly.

Quarels would like to feel better about his life, about the world, about his place in it. At the McKenna Center, he has a sense that what he does matters. Working in the kitchen matters. Talking with the other men in group matters. He matters. Here, he sees a future.

"Maybe this time I can handle it," he said, heedless of a light sprinkle starting to fall from the darkening morning sky. A spring storm. "Time will tell."


Ronnie Charles, a volunteer

Gonzaga prep senior Ronnie Charles takes part in a school tradition: lending a hand with what's needed at the McKenna Center, including cleaning, making lunches, and visiting with the men who drop in.

The lives of the McKenna Center's Guests could hardly be more different from those of the students at Gonzaga College High, just a few feet down Eye Street. Today, boys play football on a lush field that used to be a street of homes for many of the neighborhood's poorest residents. McKenna recognized this disconnect and wanted the young men receiving a Jesuit education to get just thatóhaving their hearts and souls engaged just as much as their minds. To that end, McKenna enlisted student aid for his many projects, including the St. Vincent de Paul Center.

"One thing I remember vividly is going to make these bologna and cheese sandwiches for Fr. McKenna for detention," recalls O.D. Dickson, 45, a '76 graduate of Gonzaga. Dickson admits being in detention frequently. "I was not a voluntary soul," he says, laughing. "The McKenna truck was all we really knew."

The truck still exists today, and Gonzaga students still distribute food from it, but now voluntarily and not as punishment. The McKenna Wagon is a 15-passenger white Dodge van run by Martha's Table, a service agency and soup kitchen for women that McKenna helped found in 1980. The truck distributes soup and sandwiches daily to designated spots throughout the city, and Gonzaga sophomores help out on Wednesdays after school.

Freshmen and sophomores are asked to spend one or two lunch periods each semester preparing lunches for and dining with the guests at the center, and last semester about 80 percent did so. It doesn't count toward the service hours students need to graduate, but most volunteer anyway.

Upperclassmen pitch in as well. On Thursday nights during the winter, when the center is a shelter, juniors help prepare meals and join the guests for prayer and conversation, while seniors, as part of a social justice class, volunteer to staff the shelter overnight one night a week with a faculty member.

Reflection time before and after the work is a key part of the program. "It's not just a matter of doing works for those in need, laudable as that is," says Fr. Allen Novotny, SJ, Gonzaga's president. "It's also about the reflection on what doing those good deeds does to the doer, how it changes him interiorly."

Sr. Seton Cunneen, SNDdeN, Gonzaga's director of service, believes that students and parents, many from the suburbs, choose Gonzaga for what she calls a reality check. "For some, it really is the first time they've had contact with the needy and poor," she says. The McKenna Center gives them a tremendous opportunity to make solidarity with the poor a "habit of the heart."

Students and guests engage in an annual chess tournament, a time for the men to be something other than the object of the school's largesse. "It's not simply everybody in their roles, the men as service recipients," say the center's director Paul Magno. Gonzaga grad Brendan Hartnett ('97), who spent many hours as a student volunteer at the center, now codirects the school's community service and retreat programs. To him, having young men give time there teaches them the Ignatian ideal: love is shown more in deeds than in words. He tells students, "Every day it's important to be the best you can and give something back."

Do they hear that message? He believes so. "The biggest sign that it's working is that they continue to show up."

Julie Bourbon

Julie Bourbon writes and edits for National Jesuit News and In All Things at the Jesuit Conference in Washington, D.C., and freelances for the Washington Post.

Leslie Kossoff

Photographer Leslie Kossoff freelances in the Washington, D.C., area. Time, News-week, the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe are among the many publications that have run her photos.