Ilene Leventhal, a Potomac homemaker, cut an unusual picture Sunday afternoon as she approached several homeless men huddled in blankets near the Federal Reserve Board building with a foil-wrapped package in each hand.
"Good Morning! Hello there, would you like a hot meal?"
Slowly she circled the building, calling a friendly greeting to each man before getting close enough to hand out the food.
"If you think about it, this is their home, it's where they're living," she said.
"So we try not to get too close until they acknowledge us. If they say no, we stay away."
But no one was refusing the hot meals Sunday, as Leventhal and six friends made their weekly rounds of homeless enclaves on Virginia Avenue and Lafayette Square.
This week's menu: meatloaf, stuffed shells and macaroni casseroles freshly prepared in Potomac kitchens.
Everywhere Leventhal and her troupe parked their green and tan van, scores of men and women emerged from ramshackle piles of sleeping bags and old furniture to collect the food and rummage through Leventhal's Garfinckels, Britches and Lord & Taylor shopping bags for second-hand shirts, shorts and sneakers.
Leventhal said she and her son, Shawn, 12, first ventured downtown from affluent Potomac with food for the homeless after watching a television documentary in December about life on the streets.
She has since formed "Hand to Hand," which includes about 50 Potomac women who take turns preparing and distributing food on Sundays, when most soup kitchens in the city are closed.
"Our goal is not only to feed them, but also to show them that there are people out there who care," she said.
But food was the issue as the van turned onto Madison Place at Lafayette Square, and crowds of homeless men and women who had started gathering two hours earlier ran towards the van and started jostling for places in line.
Since city budget cuts eliminated evening meals at shelters last month, Leventhal said, homeless people come to the park from all over the city each week.
Hand to Hand has doubled the number of meals it prepares from 60 to 120, yet week after week they run out at this, their final stop.
Demand here is so great, Leventhal said, that the job should be turned over to a larger organization with greater resources and manpower.
"We cannot physically handle them," she said.
"There are so many . . . . They become very agitated when we run out. It's frustrating to us and it's frustrating to them."
"At first it was just a few people who knew where it was," said John Horsey, a muscular man in his late twenties who said he has been living on the streets for six months.
"Then the crowds started getting bigger and bigger."
As volunteers handed out the still-warm foil packages and paper bags with juice, plastic utensils, rolls and cookies, Horsey and several other regulars warned the others to stay in line.
Three police officers stood by to maintain order.
After five or six minutes, not a single meal was left, and the volunteers apologetically opened boxes of rolls and cheese-and-crackers for the several dozen still waiting.
"That's the third time I've been in line and not gotten any. It's not fair," grumbled a young man in tattered jeans and T-shirt named Elton.
Gesturing towards the still-waiting crowd, he said: "Now some of us won't get nothin' to eat the rest of the day."
Leventhal apologized, wrote down his name and promised not to pass him over next week. Returning to the van, she said she didn't know how long her group could keep coming to the square.
"I've been told that we shouldn't be there, that we are putting ourselves in a potentially dangerous situation," she said.
"But I just can't pull away until I know someone else is there to provide. The D.C. government pulled the rug out from under . . . . I don't want to be another group that goes in and pulls out."