Hubert Norris' eyes widened with pain as a nurse wound fresh bandages around a surgical cut on his calf. While the nurse wrapped, Norris, 54, joked about the "zipper" down his chest, a telltale scar from the quadruple heart bypass operation he had the previous week at George Washington University Hospital.
From the hallway outside Norris' hospital-like room came the sound of banter between another nurse and her patient, who is recovering from a stab wound.
Neither of the men have a place to call home where they can heal, so they have taken up residence at a 34-bed respite shelter in Adams-Morgan called Christ House.
The four-story structure on Columbia Road NW, once an abandoned apartment building, is now the smallest hospital in town, a haven for homeless men who are recovering from a multitude of ailments.
The respite shelter, which opened nearly three years ago, is supported primarily by gifts and good will and is run by an eclectic group of nuns, nurses and physicians under the auspices of the interdenominational Church of the Savior. Most of the staff and several of their family members, including nine children, live in the building.
"If you're working with people as broken and wounded as those we see, you need a community. It's very taxing," said Dr. David Hilficker, one of the Christ House physicians, who lives in the building with his wife and two children.
"We try to be family," said Sister Lenora Benda, a nurse practitioner who explained that removing barriers between staff and residents is essential to getting sick and emotionally broken people on their feet.
At Christ House, it is not uncommon to see a boy watching television on the knee of an old man, or a baby in a stroller soaking up the sun with residents in front of the building. It is a friendly place where hugs are given freely and where, after a stay of a few weeks or more, many of the residents are reluctant to leave.
Able-bodied residents pitch in with household chores and meal preparation. One of those is John Carrollton, a muscular man of 44 who has asthma. Late in June, he said, he saw the Health Care for the Homeless van in a park downtown. "I ran over and asked for help. They were there at the right time." Carrollton was brought to Christ House and treated for nearly two months.
As Carrollton spoke, Wallace Shuman, a 65-year-old diabetic with ulcers on his legs, sat hunched over an artist's pad painting an intricate watercolor design. He said he was hospitalized at the Veterans Hospital for a while in May, and when the hospital learned that he had no place to recover he was sent to Christ House.
"I never knew this existed," he said. The Christ House staff members "are very lovely people," he said, never looking up from his work.
Christ House leads a hand-to-mouth existence, operating on $700,000 a year -- about $50 per patient per day. Funds are provided primarily by local foundations, with some government funds and medications donated by the city. "We're always on the edge," said Dr. Janelle Goetcheus, Christ House's medical director. The 46-year-old doctor also runs the Columbia Road Health Center and is medical director of the Health Care for the Homeless Project.
Goetcheus and her husband Allen, a Methodist minister, visited Washington from Indiana about 10 years ago and decided to stay and work with the locally formed Church of the Savior.
In recent years, word of Goetcheus' work with the homeless attracted other equally dedicated people such as Benda, a nurse who once worked in Thailand. Upon returning to the United States and discovering that this country faced some of the problems she saw in Third World countries, she decided that "the best thing I could do is work with the poor."
Hilficker and Dr. David Moore gave up comfortable medical practices in other states to work with the homeless in Washington. Each of the doctors is paid about $31,000 a year, about a third of the going rate for general practitioners. And they all pay rent to live in apartments at Christ House. "It's part of our journey," Goetcheus said.