Here's how things work at Patricia Handy Place, a women's shelter on Fifth Street NW, two blocks east of the Chinatown arch: Sometime before 4 p.m., two lines start forming outside. The line to the left of the door is for women who spent the previous night at the shelter and are returning. The line to the right of the door is for women who didn't but are hoping there will be space for them that night.
The women come from all over the city, drawn because they've been told, or know from experience, that the shelter, run by a charity called N Street Village, is a clean, safe and welcoming place.
What they may not know at first is that a simple concept masks a more complex one: If all you want is a place to sleep for the night, you can find it at "Pat Handy." But if you want to start a journey that culminates with never again having to stand in line for a place to sleep, you can find that there, too.
On a recent weekday evening, both lines comprised a diverse group of women. There were 20-somethings. There were senior citizens. A few women looked as if they were prepared to sleep in a park if they had to. Some were armored in puffy nylon coats, hoods cinched tight around their faces. Other women were carefully turned out and fashionably dressed: your daughter, your sister, your mother.
At exactly 4 o'clock, the front doors opened, and the line to the left started moving. The women walked past a bulletin board papered with classified ads for housing programs and apartment rentals. They put any bags they had on a table to be inspected.
Women are not allowed to bring in weapons, drugs or alcohol. Also prohibited: hair dye. (It's a mess when it spills.)
"Don't forget your cane," one of the security guards — all are female — said to a woman in a long black dress.
As the women came in, staff member Imani Grant wrote down their names. She recognized most of them. Some women went into an office where Nicole Coates sat. She handed out towels and washcloths to any clients whose evening plans included taking a shower.
Across the compact lobby, a screen provided privacy for clients waiting to see a medical professional from Unity Health Care. (Eight women would that night.)
The shelter is named for a D.C. Department of Human Services outreach worker, Patricia Handy, who died in 2012. It was dedicated in April 2016. The building is five stories high and can accommodate 213 women.
Each floor is a little different. The top floor houses 13 clients in the senior temporary program, for women 62 or older. The fourth floor is for women younger than 62 who are in the temporary program.
There's a distinction between the temporary program and what's called the low-barrier program. The former is for women making strides with education or employment. They typically stay for 18 to 24 months, each in her own room, with a shared bathroom. The latter program provides a bed for a night in a more dormlike setting.
The second and third floors are all low-barrier. There are some low-barrier beds on the first floor, too, along with a dozen "medically enhanced" beds. This is a unique program for women who are recovering from surgery or a medical crisis.
Women in the temporary programs don't have to arrive until 10 p.m., but those returning to a low-barrier bed — those who were there the previous night — must check in by 7 p.m. If a woman doesn't — if she shows up at 7:01 — her bed will be given to one of the women in line to the right of the door.
The vast majority of women do come back. They come back because of what Leslie Brettschneider, manager of temporary programs for N Street Village, calls the charity's "special sauce." Said Brettschneider: "We aren't just providing our residents with a bed. We're providing them with a community that we hope and endeavor to make safe and welcoming and dignified and respectful."
A woman who comes for a bed may stay for counseling, may see a nurse to deal with a chronic health problem, may accept help securing her benefits. At least she'll stay for dinner, which that night was turkey meatballs with whole-wheat pasta and collard greens.
At 7 p.m., all of the low-barrier beds were filled. There were six women left waiting in the line to the right. There wasn't room for them at Pat Handy. The city had declared a hypothermia emergency, which meant they could go to a rec center that had been opened for people who are homeless.
The next day, at a little before 4 p.m., two lines would start forming on Fifth Street NW. . . .
N Street Village is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand. To support the work it does at Patricia Handy Place and elsewhere in Washington, visit posthelpinghand.com and click where it says "Donate." To give by mail, make a check payable to N Street Village and send it to N Street Village, Attn: Helping Hand, 1333 N St. NW, Washington, DC 20005.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.