For close to 30 years, Gunther Stern headed up the Georgetown Ministry Center, offering a place for homeless people in our community with a clubhouse-type drop-in center providing health and wellness services, a winter shelter, and street outreach to those individuals so many of us encounter every day. A native of Washington, DC, Gunther talks about his life and how it brought him to the work to which he dedicated himself. He explains the changing nature of homelessness during his years in Georgetown and something of the causes of homelessness addressed by the GMC. Gunther’s involvement with the residents and businesses in Georgetown has meant that the GMC has become a linchpin for service and engagement in our community.
Interview With Gunther Stern
Tom Birch: We’re here with Gunther Stern, the recently retired director of the Georgetown Ministry Center. We want to talk about the last 27 or 30 years, and then what led up to that as well. Gunther, why don’t you begin where your story would begin, and how that got you to Georgetown Ministry Center?
Gunther Stern: Gosh, I don’t know where it began. I almost have to go back to thinking to my teenage years when I was hanging out in Georgetown, and got to know a lot of the folks that were on the street back then, which were teenage groups back then. I think everything in my life has brought me close to what I ended up doing. I just didn’t know it until now.
Tom: You’re a native of Washington?
Gunther: I was born and raised here. In fact, when I go on my walking tours, I’m going out to see people on the street, I walk right past where I was born, which is the Columbia Hospital for Women, as was my wife.
Tom: [laughs] . That’s terrific. You were there, getting to know Georgetown as a young person, and you went off to school, or not, or studied here?
Gunther: I did pursue…It’s interesting, I took a circuitous route through. One of the reasons I identify with people is because, in my teens and twenties, I suffered a lot from depression and struggled a lot. I dropped out of high school, actually, when I was 16. Didn’t really strike point of fact together until I was about 25, or almost 30.
The first day I walked into a soup kitchen, which was 1986, I could really relate to the people that I was serving there. I understood that some disabilities are invisible, and I think that’s something that a lot of people didn’t understand.
Tom: Was the Georgetown Ministry Center up and running when you came to it, or…?
Gunther: It was. It had been there for two years, started by members of…I don’t know if anybody really knows exactly how it started because different people say different things, but there was a group of Georgetowners reacting to the death of a homeless men on M Street close to Key Bridge. A guy named Freddie.
I remember that happening on…I happened to be driving a cab at the time and saw this poor guy out there covered in a sheet. At any rate, they organized, and it took them literally four or five years, or maybe even a little more, to get the wheels on the ground, but they did. They hired Sharon Hunt, who was my predecessor.
Tom: When it was organized, and how it was running when you arrived, what was its mission? What was its purpose? What were its activities?
Gunther: It’s interesting. When I arrived, it had two different missions, maybe three. They had a mandate to not only take care of homeless people, but also to look into homeless youth, which people thought might be a big problem. What they used to say…I forget. People shut in, elderly people who had no money, but had a house.
Again, that was something they did studies and decided that was not as needed as dealing with homeless people. They actually did a couple of studies which I thought was interesting, too. We haven’t done anything like that since.
Tom: Was there a significant presence of homeless people on the streets in Georgetown at that time?
Gunther: Absolutely, absolutely. When I was driving a cab in the ’70s, there was a significant population. Mostly hanging out at the little tavern by Key Bridge and sleeping, I think, underneath Key Bridge. I didn’t venture down there until I took this job.
Tom: Interesting. The Georgetown Ministry Center now, as I understand it, serves as a drop‑in center. There’s outreach and winter shelter.
Gunther: I want to not say drop‑in center because I think of ours as a respite, as a clubhouse kind of model, where people who weren’t welcome in any other places are welcome, and intends for them to feel some ownership in the program. Yeah, I did outreach for the entire time I was there. I came from there having done outreach in Silver Spring, so that was something natural for me.
We also started the shelter that rotates from church to church, which is modelled after what was going on in Montgomery County at the time. We didn’t have showers until 2003. We actually didn’t even have access to bathrooms for our people, so it was very hard, basically, just for the outreach model before 2003.
We got into our new digs, and we had a shower, and we had three bathrooms and a large enough place for people to sit for a good part of the day and rest. You’d be surprised at how many people who probably should be in hospitals are recuperating during the day at our center. I’m trying to think what else to say about it because I know there’s more to it that.
Tom: One thing that was interesting you touch on, I remember, actually, when Christ Church in Georgetown put in a shower and had laundry facility because they weren’t yet available at your facility.
Gunther: That’s right. I used to bring people up there. They used the showers and the laundry. Unfortunately, the distance from GMC became a little bit of a problem. I don’t think I stopped much before we got our own shower. I don’t think I did.
I’m going to throw out names. Amy Sandusky, who worked with me back until just about the time we moved into our new space. She and I were doing showers for people.
Tom: That basis, the whole topic of the community engagement in the working activities of the Georgetown Ministry Center, certainly in terms of, as you described, initiating the program, but, since then, has there been an ongoing relationship between the Georgetown Ministry Center and the community?
Gunther: The residents in the community? Oh, Yeah. First of all, through the congregation‑based shelter, but also…I can’t tell you how many Georgetowners have popped in, said, “I wanna help,” bringing sandwiches. Georgetowners are, I think, the bulk of our volunteers. Now Georgetown University students are significant, too, probably just because of the size of the campus. They probably have eclipsed the residents, but not by much.
Most caring comes from the Georgetown residents. I’ve been saying that for years. First thing people say when they hear where I work is, “Oh! Those people must really want you out of there.” [laughs] Georgetown is one of the most caring communities I think I’ve ever known.
The people are very supportive. I get way, way more calls from people saying, “I’m really concerned about this person out here. He doesn’t have a coat.” Then I get from people who say, “I don’t want this person on my step.” The vast majority of calls are for people who are just, really, caring about somebody.
Tom: People who are on the street in Georgetown are seeking shelter outside in our community. What is it that draws them to our part of the city?
Gunther: First of all, let me say that most of the people on the street in Georgetown don’t want to go into shelters. I have probably made a handful of shelter referrals in the entire 27 years. I start talking about shelter and people start saying, “No, it’s too dangerous, it’s too dirty,” all kinds of excuses.
Reality is people who are homeless have serious mental illnesses and they feel more comfortable outside, in a way. I heard one guy say…I invited one guy into our center and he said, “No, no, no, not under the beams.” I could tell that there was this palpable fear of being inside and underneath the ceiling of a roof. So, yeah.
Tom: Expand on that a little bit because I think so often, at least just in public discussion, the “problem of homelessness” gets translated to a need for housing.
Gunther: There’s no question. This is a complicated thing to answer. Again, the people that I’ve talked to about housing have said, “No, no, no, I’m OK.” In reality, they’re not OK. The evidence of this is the last two years our current mayor, along with a lot of federal money, has made all kinds of housing available with no strings attached.
You’re homeless, we’re going to put you in a place. There’s SAMHSA money. I think it’s an acronym for…I don’t know it’s an acronym for.
Tom: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Gunther: Yeah. At any rate, SAMHSA has put a lot of money into a Cooperative Agreements to Benefit Homeless Individual (CABHI) grant. They pay all these people to just go out onto the street, find people, and connect them to housing. The vouchers are coming with this. People get a voucher and, if they don’t have money at all, they don’t pay anything at all, the voucher pays it all.
If they have Social Security Disability income, then they’ll pay 30 percent of their income. In the last two years that that’s been going on, I’ve seen so many people moved off the street.
My concern is there’s no requirements for treatment and some of these people, a lot of these people, are not really capable of maintaining housing. I don’t think there’s enough support services for people that are in the housing, so I’m worried about that.
Tom: Is there a particular aspect of mental illness that you see more often than others?
Gunther: Here’s my little speech, it’s about anosognosia. Anosognosia, and don’t ask me to spell it. I can’t spell it, but I have to write it down. It’s the lack of awareness. In 50 percent of the cases of serious mental illness, all have no idea they have a serious mental illness. It affects people with Alzheimer’s as well and people who had strokes and we can see it most…I see it every day.
I say, “Would you like to talk to our psychiatrist?” “Oh, hell no. There’s nothing wrong with me.” They absolutely know that there’s nothing wrong with them, and you can see that there’s all kind of symptoms, obvious symptoms, but they have no idea. Perhaps, the biggest problem of getting people to accept housing is that it perceive it as accepting that they have a mental illness.
Tom: It’s a complicated situation that requires a fair number of responses. Over these almost 30 years, then, that you’ve been with the GMC, has there been either a shift in the numbers of people who come for service in the aspects and the types of individuals coming to the centers as part of our community in Georgetown?
Gunther: It’s changed. When I first started it was all about the crack epidemic. Hidden within that were people with very serious mental illness. The crack epidemic subsided 2000, 2003. There’s still lots of people using crack, but it wasn’t like driving homelessness. The numbers went down and then they came back up.
Youth among homelessness has become an issue more recently. I haven’t seen this personally, but, if you were aging out of the foster care system, I’ve seen a real big uptick recently because of synthetic opioids and synthetic marijuana. That’s been huge actually, just recently. It’s hidden by the fact that a lot of people…I’ve moved 500 or 1,000 people off the street in the last two years, which is…
Tom: In DC?
Gunther: In DC alone. Maybe more than that. Maybe, I don’t even have any idea because there’s been a big push to get veterans off the street. I forgot where I was coming from.
Tom: You were talking about a shift from when you first came to this work and how the picture looks now. When you mentioned individuals aging out of foster care, so those are very young people. They’re in their late teens and early 20s.
Tom: I’m wondering if the kinds of service the GMC offers is able to serve a population that cuts through the age decades.
Gunther: It’s interesting because what has been underlying all along has been serious mental illness. As these young kids come in and at first we’re talking about drugs, but then, as we dig, we find out that there is a serious mental illness in almost every case.
I say mental illness, but I include in that all kinds of brain disorders including developmental things, head injuries, and autism. We don’t see autism anymore along the spectrum. We began to recognize a lot of people we thought were dealing with schizophrenia were actually people who come to us through the developmental disability system with autism.
Tom: And whatever kind of trauma they may have been in an individual childhood or early background.
Gunther: Yeah. I need to be careful about this because I tend to think that we overplay childhood trauma. Everybody wants to come around and say, “Well, of course it’s trauma. It’s abuse.” I don’t think it is. There’s a lot of people who have developed just fine, have experienced trauma and abuse, and a lot of people who haven’t had any in their lives have ended up on the street.
I come to this mostly since I see it as something that I hear a lot from people who are seriously mentally ill. It’s trauma and then, when you start exploring it, it tends to be something that sounds more delusional than real. It usually involves the CIA or something along those lines. I don’t want to minimize it. I think we jump there much more than we should.
Tom: Is the Georgetown Ministry Center unique in the District of Columbia in what it provides and offers?
Gunther: I think it is. I think it has been. I think it’s been more community‑based, more community‑connected. It’s also been more of a caring center. The people who’ve been there have always not been people who just need a job, but people who come because they really care.
Sometimes they’re people who come out of the system. Sometimes they’re people who…It’s an entry‑level position on their career track. The one thing that everybody who’s worked there’s had in common is they really care about the people who come in, and they treat them more like a relative than like a client.
Tom: The atmosphere ‑‑ I noticed this, too, just visiting ‑‑ feels very comfortable, and a nice sense of equality that operates at Georgetown Ministry Center.
Gunther: That certainly was my intent, how we would run it. The whole clubhouse model, it’s about everybody having a similar status, that there’s no place that’s off limits to anybody. People are members, and staff and members have equal hands in taking care of the place, and also making the rules, setting the trajectory.
That’s certainly how I have wanted it. It’s a little chaotic, and some people have not had the temperament for that, but it works well.
We’ve gone through a period ‑‑ especially when the synthetic marijuana was really prevalent ‑‑ where it got really violent, it got really dangerous. I think that set us off course. I’m hoping that the new director will bring us back on course.
Tom: When you go out on street patrol, could you describe a little bit what that’s like, where your walk takes you? Do you go by yourself? Do others go with you, and staff?
Gunther: Nowadays, there’s almost always somebody with me. It’s usually a doctor. We have three doctors, a physical doctor and two psychiatrists. People are always happy to see the physical doctor, and not so happy to see the psychiatrist. Unless, of course, the psychiatrist clearly understands it’s about everybody else, but not about that person.
That does happen, and it’s surprising how many people will deny that they have any problems, but they’ll see the exact same symptoms in somebody else and know that that person needs the psychiatrist’s help.
On typical days, we’ll start out from the center, depending on which doctor I’m with, we’ll walk between three and five miles. We will either hit both the Georgetown Library and the West End Library, perhaps down around Key Bridge to check on people down there, or we’ll go to one library or the other and see people in between.
The vast majority of homeless people are either around West End Library and around the area by the Georgetown Library, Montrose Park, and Safeway, that area.
Tom: Which, I presume, are safe areas?
Gunther: I think they are, yeah. Why do they pick those areas? You know what’s interesting? I don’t know why people pick. I think they pick places for all kinds of different reasons. I think safety is generally the number one reason, but, when you think about it, there’s many, many more people camping out along K Street, down around 15th street, Connecticut Avenue.
I honestly don’t know why people…There’s always different ways.
Tom: People are different.
Gunther: Yeah, exactly. What’s something I was going to say? We go out and we see, very often, the same people. We occasionally approach a new person. I don’t always approach somebody on the first time I see them, it depends. If they look really angry, I might walk by and just say hi as I walk by and keep walking.
Occasionally, the person responded with a really friendly hi, and then I stopped and introduced myself and chatted, but so many times I stopped. I used to stop to talk to somebody and they just come out and explode, “Get away from me.”
I think that that is as traumatic for them, or maybe more traumatic for them than it is for me because I’m used to it. I just decided that I’ll say hi, and, if there’s a third time, maybe I’ll introduce myself, but just give them chance to see that I’m around and feel comfortable with me.
Tom: What’s the objective of that connection?
Gunther: The objective is always to find out what’s going on, how can I help, how can I make your life better. It usually starts out with just, “How can I make you comfortable talking to me, and talking about things that are going on in your life?”
With people who are really delusional, sometimes that’s as far as we get. We can chatter away, but not about anything significant, but just being aware of the person, and having them aware of me. If a window of opportunity opens, I might be there.
Sometimes the delusions will recede a little bit, and the person will be aware, or they’ll be in crisis, and maybe hit by a car, arrested by police, or whatever and then there might be an opportunity to connect them with somebody who can help them.
For me, Georgetown Ministry Center’s never been a place where we want people to rest permanently. We want to move them on. We don’t want to be the service, we want to be the connection to the service that’s permanent because we don’t have the facilities.
Our specialty is being there in the community, and knowing the people, and knowing the resources, and trying to connect people.
Tom: But so important, as you say, moving people on rather than saying, “Well, here’s a place for you to just be,” which I think is a very different programmatic approach than what one thinks of, which GMC really isn’t, a shelter.
The shelter is what the city runs, right?
Tom: You come in at a certain hour at the end of the day, and have to be out by…
Gunther: I don’t think moving people to shelter is really the answer. I see moving them into housing is the answer, but to get to that end we need to connect them with mental health resources. With two psychiatrists, it’s possible to get people the right treatment started and move them on.
I have to say, this is what I started. When I started 27, almost 28 years ago, the same people were on the street. Many of the same people were on the street then that are now. We did just move some of the homeless icons off the street.
In fact, anybody you might name that you got to know over the years, I can say they probably have an apartment now. They might still be there on the street during the day, but they have an apartment.
Tom: I haven’t seen Breezy in a while.
Gunther: Breezy’s been on and off. I think Breezy has an apartment, but he’s had an apartment for 20 years. We housed him for a little bit, and it just became really unwieldy. I think he might be on dying. I don’t know that for a fact, but he just looks really bad.
Tom: The picture shifts a bit?
Tom: I think it refocuses.
Gunther: It does. Getting back to 27‑and‑a‑half years ago, and now, when I left I was still working with three or four of the people that I met when I was driving a cab back in the ’70s. Some of them have died. Holly was one of them and, up until this last month, she was getting her money through the GMC. Her Social Security money.
Tom: That is an essential service, then, to offer to be able to make that connection, to support.
Tom: It’s there, legally available, has to be applied for.
Gunther: Not only that, but for all the people on the street who are collecting or could collect SSI, there are many millions more who are living someplace, and collecting it and surviving because of it, and who’ve never been homeless. The big difference is, I think I’m going back to anosognosia, just not being aware of a serious disability.
Tom: Your location, I would say, is well‑known. People are very much aware that Georgetown Ministry Center exists. The business community, I presume, is supportive. Talk about the residents.
Gunther: It depends on the person, but I think that’s true also of…It’s been a rocky history, but it is pretty friendly whether it’s just an acknowledgment that this just isn’t going to go away no matter what we do.
Back in 2005, the Business Improvement District (BID) did actually hire police details, and they’ll deny this, but to harass homeless people on the street, and it was really ugly. Since then, I think the BID took enough of what they were doing, but they stopped doing it.
Tom: It’s certainly not an answer.
Gunther: Now the BID is very supportive. The thing is, I’ve watched over the years as complaints on the police sort of pushing hard on people. They moved across the bridge into Rosslyn, where they’re tolerated. That would go on for a long time, moving them back and forth.
Current climate, and I think it’s true throughout the country in more enlightened police departments, is there’s nothing illegal about homelessness, and they have rights and they’re not just going to move them because they make you uncomfortable. They’re either arrestable or they’re not.
Tom: Your facility has just undergone a renovation and some improvements. What’s that going to mean?
Gunther: Yes. There’s more space. We have evolved over the years from a tiny, little cubby underneath the church sanctuary to…
Tom: This is Grace Church?
Gunther: Yeah, right. Exactly. To a nice looking smallish place that accommodates 30 or 40 people, the first, maybe the second iteration of the presence. The first iteration of the present place was too admin heavy and so there was room for 10 or 12 members, guests and staff.
We started looking for more space. There’s always been an interest in having more space. I know, still, we would have an interest in having more space if we could.
The first thing we figured out is, because nobody wanted us in there, even in the church, we figured out, “Well, let’s move the admin completely out, and we’ll just have it all programmed in the center because we didn’t have any problem finding administrative space.
The next iteration, 2014, opened up space more…I’m trying to think what happened. I can’t remember exactly, but it made the space even better. Then we were forced…because the shower broke and then we had, also, the SHARE fund came to us and said, “Well, we can do the shower. What else do we need?”
We started thinking outside of the box and the next thing we knew we’re into this much bigger project, which became much bigger than it meant to be. They’re not going to fund it all, so we’re needing to make up…
Tom: There’s a campaign going on now which is showing to be very successful and, of course, it’s still in the community.
Gunther: Right. Correct, and we desperately need it, but before the shower broke out completely, so it was not usable anymore. In the process we were able to combine what was the laundry room and mechanical were made into an office, laundry room and a bathroom for the staff who had to leave the place and go somewhere else to use a bathroom.
The place where staff were before is demolished and it just makes a lot more room, opened up the space between two larger rooms, so that almost becomes one room, not quite. It’s a dramatic improvement. Every step has been a dramatic improvement.
Tom: That’s a nice way to leave.
Gunther: It is. It is. Well, it wasn’t quite done and I’m sorry about that. I would have like to have christened the place, but…
Tom: Well, as I understand, there is an opening event that’s planned for April and you’ll be there, so that will be a nice time.
Gunther: Yeah. Looking forward to it.
Tom: Well, I just think the community is grateful to the fact of the Georgetown Ministry Center.
Your good grace, good nature, and hard work that has brought not only the fact of homelessness to our attention so that they could be addressed in a way that is realistic and sensible, but also in a way, as you described, that has given the community an opportunity to come together and work around a serious problem in a worthy way.
Gunther: You made me think that, if there were one thing that I wanted to be remembered for, it would be for recognizing and articulating that homelessness is just a symptom of untreated brain disorders, disorders of the brain.
The reason people are here is because we’re allowing very disabled people to just wander off into the street who is can’t take care of themselves. That’s something that needs to change. Certainly, something worth working towards and I may continue to work towards in retirement.
Tom: Well, it’s an important lesson for us all to understand and we’re grateful to you for bringing it to us.
Gunther: Thank you.
Tom: Thank you.