Veronica Maz, helped start 3 D.C. social service agencies, dies at 89


Veronica Maz was involved in the creation of the organizations So Other Might Eat, House of Ruth and Martha’s Table in the District. (Fred Sweets/The Washington Post)
July 1, 2014

On a wintry day in 1970, Georgetown University professor Veronica Maz took two of her sociology students to Washington’s skid row to see poverty close up. They talked to a few of the homeless people who were roasting chicken claws over fire barrels.

“And then I was going back to my car and my real nice comfortable home,” Dr. Maz later wrote in The Washington Post. “And a man fell down right in front of me, right on the sidewalk. And I just walked around him and got in my car.

“And when I got in my car, I started talking to myself,” she continued. “I said, ‘Why didn’t you help him?’ Well, I just assumed he was drunk. Well, what if he were drunk? He could’ve had a heart attack. . . . All that night I didn’t sleep. It bothered me personally. Whatever these sensitivities that you grow up with that you’re not even conscious of. That’s faith.”

Dr. Maz, who died June 25 at 89, became widely regarded as a patron saint of Washington’s hungry, indigent, abused and dispossessed.

On a shoestring budget, she helped start three of Washington’s most important nonprofit social service organizations: So Others Might Eat, which offers free food, counseling and health care to the homeless; the House of Ruth, which shelters and advises battered women; and Martha’s Table, which opened in 1980 (with $93) as a place for children to get free sandwiches after school.

In addition to its child-centered functions, Martha’s Table now feeds thousands of low-income and destitute individuals and families and offers support services, including clothing programs.

Ed Guinan, a former priest who founded the Community for Creative Non-Violence homeless shelter, called Dr. Maz a spearhead in the movement to address an “epidemic” of homelessness, especially after the deinstitutionalization of people with mental illness in the 1970s.

“People were in total denial that this situation existed,” Guinan said. “Even churches — and these were good-hearted people — couldn’t believe it that people in Washington were hungry or couldn’t get a meal.” He also discussed Dr. Maz’s work with women and children, saying “she pointed the way there” for organizations such as his own to follow suit.

In their book “Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life,” former president Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter wrote: “Because of Veronica Maz, individuals and groups throughout the area have stopped hurrying by the street people and started to help, volunteering at Martha’s kitchens and shelters.”

Dr. Maz — a “hyperkinetic fireplug,” as syndicated columnist George F. Will described her — left academia around the time of her encounter with the man who had collapsed before her eyes. She began a new career as a self-dubbed “social entrepreneur.”

When Dr. Maz began to work on the streets, it was a desperate moment for the capital’s poor. “The city opened more shelters, but provided no food, and a growing army of men and women were rummaging through the garbage cans behind the city’s fancy restaurants, competing with rats for the scraps,” the Carters wrote.

Dr. Maz began providing administrative support for the Rev. Horace McKenna of St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Northeast Washington. He had been a community lodestar for outreach efforts to the hungry and indigent.

With McKenna’s support, she opened So Others Might Eat — SOME, as it became known. The organization moved to an empty storefront near the church and began serving its first meals in 1971, with sandwiches and coffee supplied by a local vending-machine company.

Within two years, SOME had become the city’s largest soup-kitchen operation. She scoured for donations — getting hundreds of pounds of leftover fried chicken from a drive-through chain, loaves of day-old bread from supermarkets, uneaten sandwiches from an industrial catering company.

SOME grew into a halfway house and counseling center for recovering alcoholics, and debts mounted as it began trying to accommodate more people off the street. Meanwhile, she said, dozens of requests for city funding went nowhere. She had to “beg” to get money to cover expenses. “Everybody claims to be so interested in poverty,” she told The Post at the time, “but it’s just words, words, words.”

One imperative stuck out: the streams of women who kept showing up at SOME with nowhere else to turn. She persuaded the SOME board to open Shalom House, a shelter that at first had room for about eight homeless women. Two hundred appeared the opening week in 1973, she recalled.

Three years later, Dr. Maz began the House of Ruth as a shelter for abused women. Many women were referred by social service organizations or dropped off by police.

Dr. Maz said still others tried to reach out for help themselves, desperate to escape violent husbands and boyfriends. She recounted the calls that came with harrowing regularity from women who struggled over the phone to provide their address before screaming as the lines went dead.

“Men can always find a place,” Dr. Maz told the Los Angeles Times in 1976. “Gospel missions, the Salvation Army — they are all geared to men, with only a few beds for women. Everyone assumes that women are taken care of but it just isn’t true. There are hundreds of homeless women who don’t have one person who cares. They are friendless. They have no one. And they need someone. We are trying to be that someone.”

House of Ruth has since expanded into a network of shelters and rehabilitation centers for homeless and battered women.

Dr. Maz’s next project, Martha’s Table, was focused on the city’s most vulnerable children — hungry and neglected and often left to fend for themselves on streets cluttered with prostitutes and drug dealers. An outgrowth of Martha’s Table was a mobile soup kitchen she called “McKenna’s Wagon” after her late mentor at St. Aloysius.

Martha’s Table, which Dr. Maz left in 1987 as president, now serves 200 children a day.

“The common theme of all her work was that the safety net wasn’t working for people,” said Patty Stonesifer, president and chief executive of Martha’s Table and a past co-chair and chief executive of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She added that the District still has 30,000 children who do not have adequate access to healthful food.

“Whether it was hunger, or getting away from abuse, or whether it was a way to serve children whose parents were not prepared to provide the quality of care the children needed, her sense was there’s no sense of the least among us,” Stonesifer added. “If you’d do it for your next-door neighbors, you must do it for all. That sense permeated all she did.”

Veronica Sophie Maz was born Oct. 15, 1924, in Aliquippa, a town near Pittsburgh, where her parents owned a bar. She was a 1947 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, where she also received a doctorate in sociology in 1953.

She taught at Lake Erie College for Women in Painesville, Ohio, and Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., before joining the Georgetown faculty in the mid-1960s.

Dr. Maz died at a hospital in Beaver, Pa., of kidney ailments and complications from a broken hip, said a niece, Barbara Dzumba. Her aunt moved to Center Township, Pa., from Washington within the past few years. Survivors include a sister.

When Dr. Maz first opened So Others Might Eat, she said the concept intimidated her. “I knew nothing about soup kitchens,” she recalled. But she knew one thing — she would need soup spoons. She approached a woman in the apartment building across the street.

“I asked her for a spoon and if she would ask her neighbor for one,” she told The Post.

That afternoon, the woman brought over 75 soup spoons, and a movement was born.

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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