WASHINGTON – A Bowie man parked the white van alongside the dimly lit park just a few blocks from the White House. Almost immediately a line of about 20 people, hungry and homeless, formed on the icy sidewalk.
Wearing only thin blue smocks over their sweat shirts, college students volunteering their time began serving the patient crowd.
From the rear of the van two volunteers handed out hot meat and potato soup to heavily bundled patrons, while two more volunteers working from the middle of the van gave them slices of cantaloupe, small cups of potato salad and egg salad sandwiches.
The driver, John Mills of Bowie, meandered around the van making sure everything ran smoothly.
This was the last of three city stops Thursday night for Mills and his crew.
He explained that usually about twice as many people come out for the food, but the season’s first snow had probably kept some away.
Mills, 54, protected himself from the weather with a thick pair of brown gloves and a bright yellow jacket.
He peered down the sandwich line. It was slowly growing longer as more people wandered toward the van from the surrounding area, and others came back for a second helping.
Empty containers piled up inside the van. The volunteers kept a steady pace, handing out two or three sandwiches at a time.
For the homeless, McKenna’s Wagon is dependable, bringing them about 3,500 sandwiches and 30 to 40 gallons of soup each night of the year, said Juliet Orzal, director of volunteer services.
Orrin Williams, a 31-year-old homeless man, called McKenna’s Wagon, “the most dependable food service for the District.” The former hotel busboy has taken advantage of the service about five times a week for the past two years, he said.
The van stops close to where he stays, in an abandoned house near the Gallery Place Metro station.
Mills, who works out of his home as a real estate broker for his own company, J.W. Mills Real Estate Services, has been volunteering for McKenna’s Wagon for almost a year.
He said he heard of the group about a year ago through a WRC-TV Channel 4 segment on volunteerism, called “Volunteer 4.” It prompted him to give something back to the city he grew up in, he said.
“There are people that need help and somebody has to do it,” Mills said. “So I figured, why not me?”
He said it was the first time he volunteered to help the homeless.
Now about two nights every month, Mills makes the 45-minute trip into Washington to spend a couple of hours delivering dinner to the homeless as one of more than 200 regular volunteers for McKenna’s Wagon, the mobile soup kitchen coordinated by Martha’s Table. Martha’s Table is a nonprofit soup kitchen that also provides tutoring and after-school programs for children.
McKenna’s Wagon is one of several nonprofit groups serving the homeless in Washington. Operating since 1981, it estimates it serves 800 people every day.
There are roughly 10,500 homeless in the city at any given time, including people staying in shelters and transitional housing where a meal is usually provided, said Janice Hunter, staff attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
An estimated 1,200 to 1,500 people are on the street each night, she said, and they are the people who depend on the mobile soup kitchens.
On Thursday night, the hungry congregated in the snow- covered park, talking and laughing, as they sipped the steaming soup and stowed extra sandwiches inside their coats for later.
After about 30 minutes the line began to dwindle. Empty trays surrounded the four volunteers – students from Pennsylvania State University and the University of Wisconsin – standing inside the van.
Mills alerted everyone that they would be leaving soon, and a few people rushed to the van for one last serving.
The potato salad was gone, and what soup was left lacked the chunks of meat and potatoes. The last tray of sandwiches quickly disappeared, and the van doors closed. Mills gave the area a cursory look to make sure everyone was satisfied, climbed into the van and pulled away. -30-