A man stumbles and shrieks, rubbing his eyes wildly.
“I need to put water in my eyes!” he says.
The scene at the weekly dinner for the homeless held by StreetLight Community Outreach Ministries in Woodbridge on a recent Wednesday can occasionally be one of simmering tension: Those on the streets find a place of warmth, food and respite, while the desperation of troubled lives can spill into the church sanctuary.
In this case, a man was apparently pepper-sprayed by a woman during an argument. Things quickly quieted down, and members of the nonprofit group — which since 2004 has sought to help the homeless — resumed the meal and delivered a Christian message of faith and hope.
As the weather has dipped below freezing in the past few weeks, StreetLight, which received a $15,000 grant last year from Prince William County, has found its sought-after services to be even more important. Organizers say that turnout has been relatively steady — more than 100 people show up for dinner on Wednesday nights. The organization also offers emergency loans, a food pantry and transitional housing.
With the county’s hypothermia shelter, which has almost 50 beds, often at capacity — although county officials say they have never had to turn anyone away — organizers say they know that there are hundreds in Prince William who go to bed on the streets. Last year, a survey found 467 homeless living in the area, a decrease of 17 percent over the previous year. But advocates say that surveys are not scientific and that anecdotal accounts put the number much higher.
Rose Powers, StreetLight’s executive director, said she is looking toward the future and hopes to open more housing units and expand StreetLight’s programs, including opening a shelter. She said a huge need goes largely unmet in Prince William.
Powers said that anyone, Christian or non-Christian, can go to StreetLight. But ultimately, she said, imparting the idea of community and a Christian message is vital to future plans. Solely offering services leaves even the homeless wanting, she said.
“They’re hungry for more than food,” she said.
Despite the below-freezing temperatures on a recent Wednesday, Michael Johnson, 59, said he was on his way to sleep in an outdoor tent.
He said he sleeps with a small group behind a large chain store — something not uncommon in Prince William, advocates say.
But why not seek out the county’s emergency shelter on a cold night?
Johnson said he has been kicked out in the past for fighting and is no longer welcome. Plus, to him, the shelter feels uneasy, he said. Several people who attended StreetLight’s dinner echoed those sentiments, saying that the atmosphere at a shelter can be controlled but tense, with volatility constantly simmering in cramped public spaces.
Johnson said he’d rather be outside with a small group he knows well. “We don’t have no problems. Everything is relaxed,” he said. “We look out for each other. We do the best with what we got.”
Before he left, StreetLight volunteers handed Johnson several bottles of propane for a gas heater he uses to keep warm.
After years of homelessness, Rob MacAlister, 38, said that StreetLight has accepted him into a transitional housing unit. Before, he was scraping together odd jobs to make the roughly $500 per month he needed to live on the streets.
With housing taken care of, Rob said, he is able to focus on getting a job and staying out of trouble. He said he struggles to find work because of past run-ins with the law.
But, he said, he has started to turn things around with StreetLight’s help.
“I have found brothers in Christ to be mentors for me,” he said.
Rob acknowledges an argument others might make about StreetLight’s programs: It’s “a crutch.”
“There’s a lot of dependency,” he said. “But if they don’t [provide services], people will die.”