As day breaks, the homeless women who spend their nights at the Calvary shelter near Eighth and H streets NW pack up and move out. The "morning lounge hour" is about to begin, and homeless men enter for coffee and shaves.
For the men this brief respite ends Friday, when money for their program runs out. It won't be much better for the women's overnight shelter, which was notified recently that the city had refused to grant a request for several thousand dollars in operating expenses.
Talking to these people about what the program means to them is difficult, for many have severe mental problems. Approach them and they withdraw, averting their eyes into cups of coffee. They are clearly frightened, and with good reason.
The winter is over and the city is starting to cut back funds to shelters that serve those most severely traumatized by mental illness and life on the streets.
"Warm weather presents an awful break in their lives," said Terry Lynch, director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, a coalition of church groups that pool their resources to provide shelter for the homeless. "The lack of continuity in public concern for the plight of the homeless becomes a major setback, especially for those on the verge of getting themselves together."
Says Ann Baxter, who runs the shelter in the Calvary Baptist Church, "Even though homeless women are subject to rape and robbery, if they aren't about to freeze to death, it's not a big deal."
Each night between 20 and 35 homeless women show up at the doors of the Calvary shelter, which opened two years ago to relieve an overflow of homeless people that resulted from cuts in government social programs. The shelter was slated to stay open for only two months, but the flow of homeless people never ceased.
The scene today is pathetic: elderly women laden with bags and suitcases, some clutching photo albums, Bibles, a favorite sweater or a hat, looking for a place to sleep. Some have been battered, evicted by landlords or simply released from St. Elizabeths mental hospital with no place to go. Last year, Calvary shelter officials asked the city government to pick up a third of their operating costs, amounting to about $19,000 including funds for a social worker and a mental health therapist. The city refused, noting that it spends about $300,000 on the House of Ruth, the city's largest shelter for homeless women, which has 68 beds.
Yet on any given night 300 to 400 homeless women are in need of shelter, according to a spokesman for the city's Coalition on the Homeless.
"We take women who have been kicked out of the House of Ruth because of the severity of their mental problems," Baxter said. "We've had cases where women 75 years old and up have come to us after being raped in the streets. Some stay as long as two years because they have nowhere else to go."
Now comes the warm weather, and the notion that the homeless can fend for themselves. But ask them what summer means, and those who dare to talk with strangers offer a picture worse than most can imagine.
"Sometimes I try to get a job, but if I can't I come here to calm my nerves and watch TV," said Rufus Brown, one of the 30 or so men who congregate at the center during the morning lounge hour. "It's just a place where you can be, and nobody tries to put you out every five minutes.
"You can put on enough rags to stay warm in the winter," one woman at the shelter said. "But when it gets hot and muggy you have to take off your clothes. Mosquitoes and lice are the least of my worries." Her greatest fears are of rape or abuse.
"Before I came here I would go to the park at night but I wouldn't sleep," another woman said. "I talk to my friends all night," she says, drawing a blank when asked who her friends are. "I sleep in the day when it's safe."
And what if the Calvary shelter closes?
The women stare at each other, each hoping that the other will have a plan. But neither does. So both stare at their coffee cups, trembling in the chill of summer's neglect.