Providing Nourishment to the Souls of the Homeless

By Lynn Stearns

There is a place in Washington, D.C., where on-site medical attention, nutritious meals, and clean beds are provided, 24-hours a day to men who have no insurance, no money and often no hope of healing. More importantly, the "guests" as they are called, receive nourishment for their souls at this place called Christ House.

Dr. Janelle Goetcheus, M.D., and her husband, the Rev. Allen Goetcheus, were living in Muncie, Ind., when they visited Washington, D.C., and saw first hand the urgent needs of those living in the streets.

"After praying together, we felt led to move here to work, Dr. Goetcheus said. In 1976 she began working at an inner-city health clinic and volunteering at a soup kitchen in the District, but found it harder and harder to send people back to overcrowded shelters or the streets.

"I saw so many in need of a place to go for recuperation. The homeless we treated were turned back to the streets where minor problems became major." She remembered those with colds who returned to the streets -- inclement weather and inadequate rest brought on pneumonia a week later. Those with ulcers -- the arms, legs and feet of the homeless are particularly vulnerable -- had no opportunity to elevate their feet and allow the ulcers to heal. They often required amputation.

When a donation of money provided the opportunity to purchase and renovate a building, Dr. Goetcheus and friends created Christ House, the only facility of its kind in the country.

"The immediate goal was to provide a place where homeless men could heal, but along with that goal came the idea that we'd live here with the men," said Dr. Goetcheus, whose family shares the third floor with other staff and their families as well as a few patients.

Life without a home, where abuse and neglect have often been the norm for generations, has its own unique set of problems. In addition to living with the men, Dr. Goetcheus assigns a team to begin treating the whole person, not just his disease, as soon as each guest arrives. The patients have a variety of injuries and illnesses with almost all needing attention for more than one problem.

Addiction, anemia and arthritis head the list that also includes fractures, pneumonia, lung disease, foot and leg ulcers, AIDS, HIV infection, gunshot wounds, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and kidney failure. In addition to evaluating and treating patients, the staff makes arrangements for hospitalization, visits to specialists and follow-up care.

While Dr. Goetcheus serves as Medical Director, her husband provides pastoral counseling. Patients are invited to join a variety of activities designed to address their spiritual needs. The dining room often serves as the place where great spiritual healing begins. Three well balanced meals, including those for special diets, are prepared and served family style, every day. There is a monthly birthday celebration at lunch time and weekly "Table Fellowship," which is a special dinner, worship and fellowship time where the worthiness of each person is proclaimed with speakers and gospel groups often participating.

"Many see themselves as loved and gifted for the first time during their stay here," said Dr. Goetcheus.

The Social Service Department at Christ House works to obtain legal entitlements for the men, locate family members and arrange for help with addiction problems. There are Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and a HIV/AIDS education program. Staff and volunteers offer tutoring, art and poetry classes, and take the men to plays and sporting events. The director of housing works to secure living arrangements for patients when they are ready to be discharged.

The unique approach at Christ House, one of treating the whole man and treating him with dignity and respect, has led to success. Since opening its doors on Christmas Eve 1985, an average of 350 men from 18 to 81, of all nationalities, have been welcomed at Christ House each year. Some return to the streets, but more than two-thirds move on to community facilities, substance abuse treatment programs and nursing homes. Others, like Henry, come back to Christ House to visit and work as volunteers.

"When I came here, my nervous system was gone. My legs didn't work. Now I take care of all the clothes," said Henry with obvious pride. Each week, he sorts, washes, and distributes donations of clothes, pleased to be able to give something back to Christ House. Based on physical capabilities and general readiness, all clients are encouraged to participate in the maintenance and on-going life of the ministry.

Except for a comment about "So much frostbite last year," and remembering with gratitude the people who have worked with her in the past, Janelle Goetcheus appears to be focused on the present, dealing with the suffering she sees on a daily basis with a strong faith and believing that she is meant to be doing this work.

As to the future, she says simply, "There are those for whom we'll always need to be here. The need is great." .

Dr. Goetcheus has an impressive list of awards, but they're not flaunted openly. There's simply no inclination nor time as she goes about her duties at Christ House, "Working to end this needless suffering," her work beginning with a "Welcome" to each new guest.

Gifts of food, clothing, toiletries and financial donations are always appreciated, as are volunteers. For more information, call 202-328-1100.

SPOTLIGHT is a regular feature of Village Life about not-for-profit
organizations that are making a difference helping people in need.

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