When a street person freezes to death on the sidewalks of Washington, it becomes a personal tragedy for Mary Ellen Hombs. Her mission in life is to help the homeless, the itinerant and the hungry, and to do so she has given up thoughts of career, marriage and a middle-class life style.
Hombs, at 29, is one of the leaders of the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV,) a small pacifist group continually battling with city and church leaders about providing facilities for the homeless. When she is not asking for operating funds from friends and supporters, she scrounges for food and cooks hundreds of meals daily for people waiting in the soup line. Working seven days a week, nights included, without holidays, benefits or salary, she has been arrested and jailed a number of times in her campaign to obtain better treatment for the homeless.
Her goal, Hombs says, is to persuade the churches and the District government to provide shelters in every area of the city, shelters which would be attractive enough "so that even the most isolated, the most hardened person could feel the desire to come out of the cold."
While Hombs fights for shelters for the homeless, she also tends to their hunger. "Someone has to feed the people on the street," she says, standing in the kitchen of the CCNV house at 1325 Euclid St. NW, pouring potato flakes into boiling water. "Lots of people are going hungry."
Hombs brushes a wisp of hair out of her eyes and stirs one of the four pots simmering on the stove. On an ordinary day, she cooks enough food to feed 600 persons.
CCNV meals are served once a day at the Drop-In Center at 906 12th St. NW, near the bus stations. At the center, street people are allowed to use the bathroom, wash, shower and change clothes. Among the shelters available to the homeless at night are the former Pierce and Blair schools. The CCNV helped convince the city to open these shelters and has fought to keep them in the face of possible city budget cuts.
When it comes to food, Hombs says, "Mostly we scrounge. We take whatever people throw out or what's donated to us." Stores and markets donate fruits and vegetables that are overripe. Often, Hombs and her fellow workers can be found digging in the dumpsters behind supermarkets.
An unlikely candidate for her current life style, Hombs is the daughter of a high-ranking Air Force officer -- an Air Force "brat," as such young people sometimes are called. She attended Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, studied public affairs at George Washington University and earned a master's degree in urban planning at Howard University.
While in high school, she recalls, she took part in a program tutoring inner-city youths and became aware of some of the problems facing the poor. Like many children of affluence, she participated in antiwar politics during her college days, learning the uses of nonviolent civil disobedience. Unlike many of her peers, she did not return to an establishment life style.
"I believe I have a spiritual calling to do something more than write a check to United Way," Hombs replies when asked why she had decided to work with the poor. "Christ said give everything you have to the poor, and we take that literally." She adds that her family has given moral support to her pacifist activities.
Hombs helped found the CCNV in 1970 as part of the protest against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. When other antiwar groups faded away, the CCNV stayed. "We took a hard look at D.C.," Hombs said, "and found a lot of injustice going on here." Begining in 1972, Hombs helped establish the Zacchaeus Community Kitchen, 1612 L St. NW; the Barabbas House, 1331 N St. NW, a residence for persons awaiting trial; and the Zacchaeus Clinic, 1329 N St. NW.
The CCNV comprises about 24 persons, including radical Christians, Vietnam veterans, pacifists, former street people and several European missionaries.
Hombs lives in poverty. "I can't remember the last time I was in a store," she admits. "For me, going to Woodies is like going to the Smithsonian for most people." She claims this doesn't bother her and neither does giving up a promising career as a city planner.
"Most of my old classmates have gone on to become very successful in their fields," she says. "One of them was the prosecuting attorney in our last court case."
Besides a career and earning money, Hombs has postponed love and marriage. "My life is here now," she says. "I can't see myself becoming seriously involved with anyone right now. It wouldn't be fair to him or me."
Hombs says she has been arrested and jailed so many times that she has lost count. She recalls at least a dozen arrests for disorderly conduct and unlawful entry, including an arrest last winter when five CCNV members occupied the Washington Cathedral in an effort to get the church to open its doors to the homeless.
Hombs, who describes herself as a "Christian anarchist," says the CCNV does not seek government funding and rarely accepts money from organized religious groups because this might compromise CCNV's independence. CCNV members do not work at outside jobs because they are too busy and also because as hard-line pacifists, they refuse to pay taxes that would go toward military expenditures.
As a result, the CCNV, like those they serve, lives from hand to mouth. The CCNV's budget last year, Hombs said, was about $36,000, including rent, utilities and gasoline for their aging van and car.
Homes is writing a book about her 10 years of CCNV activity. She testified last fall before the House District Committee about the plight of the homeless.