WASHINGTON – As the white Salvation Army van pulls up to 6th Street and Constitution Avenue in Northwest D.C., driver Corey Upchurch honks the horn to let clients know the Grate Patrol has arrived.
About six or seven people walk out of the shadows, their clothes tattered and threadbare. Upchurch opens the van and two volunteers hop out ready to distribute bottled water, homemade chili, hot chocolate and brown-bag lunches to anyone who asks.
“This is pretty tame here tonight,” says Salvation Army spokesman Ken Forsythe as a homeless man asks for a garbage bag.
The Grate Patrol makes nightly rounds through downtown D.C. every day of the year. It starts across the street from the Newsuem and heads down Constitution to 14th Street and then up to McPherson Square. It makes periodic stops at parks and corners where volunteers know homeless people gather, some of them within eyeshot of the National Mall.
With winter around the corner, the Salvation Army and other organizations that help the homeless are gearing up for what some forecasters say will be a frigid season.
“Most of [our clients] have no homes, so what we are doing is providing them with life-giving sustenance … to be able to survive and be able to function staying out all night,” Forsythe says.
The Grate Patrol was founded about 30 years ago by a volunteer who noticed men sleeping on top of grates to keep warm. Aside from passing out hot food, the Salvation Army also distributes clothing and blankets when available. A social worker does her own rounds at the same locations to connect clients with services like emergency shelters, job training and medical attention if needed.
D.C. officials predict a 10 percent increase in the number of families who will be without shelter this season, The Washington Post reports. The city also expects there to be an increase in homelessness among adult, single men. The adult female population should stay about the same, the Post reports.
On average, the Grate Patrol serves about 70 to 80 people a night, though it has the capacity to feed 150. If food is leftover, clients are welcome to come back for seconds. No one is turned away.
“Why do you always serve bologna and cheese? It’s so salty,” says a woman who Upchurch calls one of his regulars. “You know what you should have? Avocado and fresh tomato slices.”
Upchurch explains that the woman, who does not want to be named, lives in an apartment, but comes to the Grate Patrol for help feeding herself. She is one of the people Upchurch enjoys seeing the most.
“We laugh. We joke,” Upchurch says. “It’s just about making their day — that’s the important part. And making sure they have a hot meal for the night.”
Across the river, the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network (A-SPAN) is getting ready for winter in a different capacity. The emergency winter shelters opened Nov. 1. Capacity has been expanded to 75 beds, with additional space for up to 15 people available in an overflow section. Those shelters are open from 4 p.m. to 9 a.m. until March 31.
A-SPAN has been averaging about 71 guests per night, something Executive Director Kathy Sibert attributes to the county’s success in finding people homes.
“Arlington County has been really focused on getting people housed first,” she says, adding that her organization has successfully found homes for 40 people, including nine veterans.
Forty-two other people were connected with homes in the last fiscal year, says Cindy Stevens, Arlington County Department of Human services Housing Assistance Bureau Chief.
Winter shelters are also in place in Fairfax County, City of Fairfax and City of Falls Church.
But for the Grate Patrol, offering a way to get through the night is as important as what comes after.
“You might think of it as just being a cup of coffee or a bowl of soup, but really we all have a hand in making sure that our neighbors are taken care of,” Forsythe says.
“It’s a humbling thing to be in the position to need something from someone else.”
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