While most of the residents of La Morada, a bilingual shelter for men, seemed oblivious to all the hoopla yesterday, it was clear from the hors d'oeuvres that something unusual was about to happen.
Mayor Marion Barry dropped by La Morada, "the living place," in Mount Pleasant to inspect the 61-bed facility and commend its staff members and volunteers on a partnership formed with small businesses to provide services.
"We are not to hold government solely responsible for housing the homeless," the mayor told the small gathering at the shelter's first open house. "We have to work together to eliminate homelessness . . . . "
The building at 1436 Irving St. NW, which had been a grocery store and a garage, was transformed into a shelter in January and is the only adult shelter currently operated by the Department of Human Services. Other adult shelters are run by agencies under contract.
Yesterday a few La Morada residents, most of whom are Hispanic, watched the influx of District government officials, small business owners and community activists.
The mayor strolled between lines of metal beds, stopping to lift one of the white sheets to inspect the firmness of its mattress. A lone man slept in another bed, while worn shoes under most beds and a couple of hats on bedposts were the only signs of the other residents.
"We're holding this open house to say a partnership between the public and private sector can work," said Dennis Bethea, Chief of the Office of Emergency Shelter, in an apparent allusion to the breakdown in the partnership between the federal government and the Center for Creative Non-Violence over an 800-bed shelter for the homeless.
Bethea said of La Morada:
"We have volunteers from the nonprofit Shelter For Homeless Inc. come every day. The United Methodist Church did the painting of the building. Brown's Thrift Store on 14th Street painted the beds. The chairs were donated by Central Union Mission. What we have clearly learned is that the community can be called upon, and they rise to the occasion . . . . "
Arlene Gillespie, Director of the Office On Latino Affairs, said that La Morada satisfies a special need because "it has bilingual capabilities and offers more than most shelters: employment resources and mental health counseling."
From advertisements placed in newspapers before the shelter opened, said Juana Martin, one of the organizers of La Morada, she was able to get bilingual volunteers from Georgetown University and the World Bank.
As visitors mingled, Julio Hernandez, a 45-year-old resident of the shelter, said through an interpreter, "The staff is good."
Another resident, Lazaro Rodriquez, 50, said: "I can't feel well [about La Morada] because it's not the same as having my own home. Here, we have to get up when people tell us to get up."
The other most frequent complaint from the residents present was about meals at the shelter.
After the brief ceremony at La Morada, Charles Gary went back to "Chuck's," his small bar and grill next door. At the open house, he had been introduced by the mayor as an example of a good neighbor who had welcomed, instead of protested, the shelter's opening.
Standing behind the counter at the grill that he has owned for 15 years, Gary said: "People who live in poverty tend to understand poverty. Most of us living around here live in shelters."
"This is a shelter," he said. "We know what it is to be displaced. Hundreds of people from this neighborhood have been displaced by Urban Renewal, forced out of this neighborhood. Now they will never be able to come back because of the prices."
While he called La Morada "a clean, well-kept place," he said, "You come back to that shelter later, when the cream of the crop isn't there, when the visitors are gone. Some of these so-called concerned citizens we won't see up here again until the mayor comes back."