Seven months after McKenna House opened with great expectations, the experiment continues today under the leadership of two people who seem wiser and more skeptical, yet still committed to the idea of human redemption.
Now tempered by experience, Friar Jack Pfannenstiel and employment counselor Artice Forrister refer less often to success and failure rates than they once did, recognizing that such terms can be false measures of the project's true value. In the end, when one deals with the myriad dreams and fallibilities of troubled and destitute men, it is not the cold facts and figures that matter so much as the simple humanity of the effort itself.
"The whole point here is to help a man find value and worthiness in himself, despite his past," said Friar Jack. "If we're able to do just that, everything else can follow."
"McKenna House is a very tender ministry," added Archbishop James A. Hickey. "Each day we learn more. It's a pioneer work. . . . The only thing that doesn't change is our faith and commitment."
At the outset, Friar Jack predicted that 90 percent of the first 15 candidates would "make it." In the very narrowest of terms, that meant the once-homeless men would find steady work and their own places to live.
He wasn't wildly off in his prediction. Eight of the men did find work and no longer have to live in the streets of Washington.
Bryan Pleasant now lives in a one-room apartment just across the District line in Prince George's County, a 10-minute bus ride away from his sales job at the Montgomery Ward store in Iverson Mall. He averages about $200 a week in income.
William Jenkins moved into an apartment on Capitol Hill this summer within walking distance of the National Museum of Natural History. There he earns $13,900 a year as a security guard.
John Norman, who earns $4.75 per hour as an apprentice building engineer for an apartment complex on Connecticut Avenue NW, now resides in an efficiency apartment on Piney Branch Road and continues to see his kids on weekends.
Charles Monroe is working as a clerk for a marketing firm in Southeast, Michael Anthony Groom as a part-time janitor and Wayne Miller as a volunteer for the Community for Creative Non-Violence at a public shelter for the homeless at 2nd and D streets NW. OO f the seven men who were unable to find or hold steady O jobs, two are staying once again at public shelters and one, an Ethiopian exile, sleeps in Kalorama Park. Jeff Horgos, a 29-year-old Pittsburgh native who quit his job in Rockville and moved into a $5-a-day room on M Street NW, recently was evicted and is homeless again. The whereabouts of two others, including Rickey Byars, are unknown.
In August, shortly after he returned to McKenna House, Robert Emil Moens got a part-time job working for a rug cleaning company. He had saved about $200 when he quit in early September, disappointed that he was only earning about $65 a week.
On Sept. 12, Moens moved out again, lugging his chess set, books and a spare set of trousers in a blue vinyl bag he found in the McKenna House basement. He spent that afternoon searching the city for an apartment, but ended up sleeping outside -- amid several boxwood bushes beneath a building overhang near the corner of 18th and D streets NW. He still sleeps there. Moens is selling newspapers again, this time on the corner of 17th and I streets NW, and each afternoon he plays a few rounds of chess in Lafayette Square. For the most part, he says, "I'm doin' okay."
Three other men who were involved with McKenna House from the beginning are no longer there. Friars Stephen Carter and Roman Kozacheson, weary from the emotional demands of the project, transferred in July to the Shrine of the Sacred Heart across the street. Brother Christopher Jensen recently decided to transfer to a Capuchin ministry in Pittsburgh.
On Oct. 1, McKenna House closed for a one-month period of assessment. Friar Jack and Forrister are spending these weeks evaluating the lessons of the first seven months and interviewing a new batch of homeless men who are slated to move in the first of November.
To Friar Jack the lessons are many and varied. "Homelessness is a very traumatic experience," he said, hands clasped behind his head, his gaunt face seeming a little older and more worldly. "And the causes of homelessness are just as diverse as the population itself. There's only so much that heart and compassion can do here. In a few cases, money and jobs aren't enough either."
But McKenna House, he added, will continue to focus its efforts on behalf of those men whose primary handicap is joblessness. At the same time, he said, he would like to see McKenna House offer more in the way of psychological counseling and treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. Officials of Associated Catholic Charities are considering a proposal to hire two lay professional counselors who would be available during the day for sessions with the residents.
When the house reopens, the new residents will be required to spend the first two weeks in intensive employment and mental health counseling sessions. Friar Jack said one of the lessons he has learned is that the house needs more discipline, and that the men in fact want it. "When the last group left, they all told me they wished we had kicked their butts a little more," he said.
Friar Jack also would like to see more roundtable discussions among the men about their reminiscences of poverty, joblessness and life in the streets. "If we can just help them remember where they're coming from," he said, "perhaps they'll be less inclined to return."
One thing won't change, though. As long as the church is associated with the house, some Capuchins will remain there. In the words of Archbishop Hickey, "they are the pulse of McKenna House." NN ow, as Friar Jack prepares to reopen the house, he is N guided not just by the light of his beliefs, but also by the examples of men who escaped from despair.
On the day William Jenkins moved into his new apartment, the first number he dialed on his telephone was 332-7333.
"McKenna House," a voice answered.
"Billy!" the priest exclaimed.
"Yeah, it's me, man, I'm here," Jenkins said, laughing. "Just checkin' out my phone."