Biden serves meal at D.C. shelter in surprise visit

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 14, 2009

In a foray to a side of the nation's capital that tourists and television cameras rarely see, Vice President Biden helped serve lunch Friday to dozens of homeless men at a shelter on the outskirts of downtown Washington.

Biden's surprise visit to the Father McKenna Center of St. Aloysius Church on North Capitol and I streets NW startled some of the 80 men who stood stiffly as the vice president's entourage rushed past the dining area.

Biden, casually dressed in a black baseball cap, black V-neck sweater, khaki trousers, rubber gloves and a worn brown apron, took his place behind a folding table and a tray of fish sticks.

The vice president said he served the men because "you've got to remind yourself that but for the grace of God there go I. Sometimes you forget that this is real."

Unemployment in the nation's capital is at 11 percent, above the national average. St. Aloysius Church is several blocks from Union Station, in the shadow of the Capitol, five minutes by motorcade from the White House.

"I do this at home," Biden said as he lifted a piece of fish with tongs and placed it on the plate of a man who shuffled by, eyes down, not recognizing his server. "I wanted to do this. I asked where I could do this without a lot of fanfare, and they told me I could do it here."

A spokeswoman said Biden and his family try to stay active during the holiday season. They stuff stockings for soldiers and serve the homeless.

The shelter at St. Aloysius was established in the early 1980s to carry on the work of a priest who served there for two decades. The Father McKenna Center, named after Horace McKenna, is a daytime drop-in shelter for about 100 men. It offers substance abuse counseling, houses an HIV/AIDS program and provides laundry services.

The shelter receives no city funding. It is paid for by donations from individuals, foundations and charities, said Gary Hines, the shelter's associate director.

Biden's visit, Hines said, "was spur of the moment. They contacted us a couple of days ago. We didn't know who it was. We didn't find out that it was the vice president until yesterday. We were, like, 'Cool.' "

The homeless clientele was more lukewarm. Recipients grumbled about the presence of police and hid from members of the media, who rarely visit the center because of its policy against photography.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company