A parade of gaunt, bandy-legged men and women, clutching armloads of used clothing and canned food, pour out of the store-front mission at 7th and G streets NW.
Once outside, part of the parade heads for Zaccheus Kitchen for a meal of soup, bread and weak coffee. Others return to their park benches, and some begin a slow trek through the city streets. A few proceed to job interviews or to the corner of 5th and K streets NW with "a hope" to "catch out" a few hours of work with a construction crew.
Inside the mission - the Urban Cooperative Ministry Center - director Elizabeth Ferrel sits at a table with three men, calling out jobs from the classified ads in the newspaper.
"Do you want a security job?" she asks no one in particular, her sad, cat-like eyes moving from man to man.
"Not particularly," one man replies.
"Anyone interested in a fast food job, cleaning up as a bus-boy?"
The question evokes casual inquiries about the work location and work hours.
As ferrell reads on, the parade of clothes-clutching marchers continues through the center.
They are a study in contrasts. Young and old. Disabled and physically robust. Some are college-educated, others can barely read. Ex-cons, drug addicts and alcoholics joke with government retirees, veterans, mechanics and skilled labourers.
All, however, are united by a common bond - a chronic joblessness that forces them to spend each day living on a handout and a hope.
The hope, they said, is that a well-paying job will appear before they become too sick or too frustrated to resist life on skid row. The handouts from the missions, such as the Urban Ministry Center, and soup kitchens tide them over while they hope.
George Credle, 47, a rail-thin, unemployed office cleaner, said he was sent to the Urban Ministry Center by a priest from downtown parish.
"I was trying to get some assistance to pay my rent," Credle said. "I didn't have any income at the time."
Warren Boddie, 37, another unemployed office cleaner, sits beside Credle.
Boddie was laid off his job eight months ago, he said. Later, he was evicted from his apartment because of a fire in the building.
"My friend here got me a place," he said, nodding toward Credle. But Boddie said he still has no income.
"My mother lends me money sometimes."
In the two years the downtown emergency care center has been open, Ferrell said, and average of 700 people have come through each month for free food and clothing.
Seventy percent of them are unskilled, unemployed men with little education, she said. Sixty percent have no incomes, she estimates, 35 percent live on fixed incomes and 5 percent have jobs.
According to the latest D.C. Labor Department figures, 27,500 people are unemplyed in Washington. For the chronically unemployed, victims of drug or alcohol abuse, illiteracy or just "bad nerves," life is an unending series of unfulfilled dreams where even the desire for a drink of water can have a price.
In April, Ferrell began a job-counseling program to help some of those people find temporary work that would provide them with car fare and cigarette money until something better came along. Eighteen men and two women now have jobs found by the center, she said, and about 30 people regularly attend tri-weekly evening counseling sessions.
In emergencies, the center also lends bus tokens and small amounts of cash to the clients. Then, every Friday, Ferrell waits for the men to come pay her back.
"So far, we have a two-thirds pay back rate," she said.
Occasionally, they also have a success story.
John Green, an ex-skid row drug addict and alcoholic, now spends his days renovating houses and his free hours as a center volunteer. He calls the volunteer work "my support system."
Until three years ago, "I was down and out," Green said. "With the help of these people and few others, they gave me the motivation to look at myself and do something."
Green and several other men said the help at the center is in sharp contrast to hardships encountered at city-run shelters.
"The shelters are set up to snatch the last little bit of self-esteem away from you," Green said.
Ferrell agreed. "The guys from the shelters have double the problems of guys who have somewhere to sleep."
For several months, she said, she has asked city officials to place washers and dryers in the shelters to allow the men to wash their clothes.
Breakfast at the shelters - usually left over sandwiches and coffee - is served after many of the working men have already left for their jobs, she complained. Also lacking is recreation, she said. The shelters don't open until 8 p.m., forcing many men to walk the streets after work until the shelters open.
The center, organized by a downtown cluster of 12 churches, is open from 9 a.m. until 2.30 p.m. weekdays. There are no sleeping facilities there.
The bulk of the financial responsibility is carried by six of the churches who name members to the center's board of directors, Ferrell said.
Between them, the six churches pay for Ferrell's salary, the store front, employe parking, secretarial help, food and clothing packages and other funds needed to operate the center.
Activities are run by Ferrell and four volunteers. Jobs are located by the gusty director, who religiously reads the classified ads and corrals security guards in stores to ask, "Are they hiring here?"
Still, there is never enough, she said. The center constantly seeks volunteers who will help find temporary jobs - "even a few hours" - or set up food and clothing drives in their neighborhoods.
During an average week, 25 bags of food are distributed, said volunteer Eunicestine Johnson. "People come in for clothes all day long."
"You'd be surprised at the people out of homes, food, clothes. Some are glad to just get a piece of bread," added volunteer Lillie Walker.
"Like that old man been coming in everyday for a month to ask for a loaf of bread," said another volunteer, Dorothy Watts. "Today I asked him why."
Watts said she learned that last month the man and his wife had lived on the bread and water.
"He wouldn't just ask for the food. He said he was scared he couldn't get it because he had been turned down so often (by social service agencies)," said Watts shaking her head sadly. "They're helpless."
It is that helplessness along with the challenge of helping skid row victims that completed Ferrell to begin work at the center eight months ago, she said.
"I really believe there's a lot of self-help possible," she said, "if you're really genuine and professional.
"The main thing is, I think (the center) is headed in the right direction toward encouraging people to help themselves.We just try to encourage everyone to feel very positive about what they do with their lives.
"We assume these men are positive people. And I'll feel that way until they prove otherwise."
Meanwhile, on the corner at 5th and K streets NW, Daniel P., a fast-talking, 30-year-old ex-con, tells how he has been unable to find steady work since he was released from the federal prison last December.
"I stand out here five, six hours a day. If a hope come through I get work," he said.
"The (catch out) job might be an hour, two hours, three hours (and) I usually earn $10 or $12 a day. You might as well say I do eight hours for the hope."
"You go into a restuarant and ask for a drink of water and they'll ask you for a nickel!" said an unemployed skid row man.
"I swear I don't like standing out here!" exclaimed an unemployed construction worker. "But I got to survive."
Another man, his voice laced with bitterness, added, "When that food truck come up with those hot sandwiches and you can't buy none you look simple."
A short while later a familiar van approached the curb and the men raced to the truck to inquire about the job. Seven were selected.
The job? One man said they were going to evict families in Gaithersburg. CAPTION: Picture 1, City statistics indicate there are 27,500 jobless people in Washington. Carol Jefferies and Eunicestine Johnson, sort clothes to give to the jobless who come through the Urban Cooperative Ministry Center at 7th and G streets NW. One man finds a resting place at 5th and K streets NW; nearby, men surround a crew leader who has jobs to offer. By Craig Herndon - The Washington Post; Pictures 2 and 3, no caption, By Vanessa Barnes - The Washington Post; Picture 4, Director Elizabeth Ferrell, of the Urban Cooperative Ministry Center, and George Credle, a client at the center. By Craig Herdon - The Washington Post