If you didn’t know better, you’d think the cars and trucks parked outside South Potomac Church in Waldorf, Md., one weekday night meant there was some kind of church social going on. Actually, it was something quite different — the last evening of Safe Nights, Charles County’s seasonal shelter program for the homeless.
I was at the church off a busy state highway in this Washington, D.C., exurb to do a story on how the Charles County Public Schools are helping homeless students and their families.
I’d talked to school officials at length. Now I had to find homeless students, which isn’t necessarily easy. Safe Nights rotates between various churches throughout colder months, and finding out where it was this particular week was harder than you might think.
Sometime in the 1960s, when I was in either high school or middle school, I read a book for an American history class called The Other America, by Michael Harrington, about poverty in the United States. It made a big impression on me, and one of the things the author said that has stuck with me all these years is that poverty is “invisible.” The poor are, by nature, separated from the mainstream, both physically, to be sure, and in other ways as well.
You could say the same about families that are homeless. Driving the 45 miles from my office to Waldorf, past sprawling shopping centers and endless subdivisions, I wondered, “Is there really a story here? If I have to drive this far just to find a homeless student, how big a deal is this?”
It is a big deal; we just don’t see it. Once inside South Potomac Church, I found a small, cordial community of about 50 people. Adults talking softly, sharing an evening meal. Children playing, laughing, drawing pictures, and running among the cots set up in the church hall. And, to be sure, it really did have the kind of warm atmosphere of a church social — albeit one with a backdrop of shared hardship.
Read my story, and you’ll meet two members of that community, Adrian Barbour and his 8-year-old son, son, Dubois, who goes to a Charles County Elementary School, where his father meets him every day for lunch when he’s not out on a job interview. They are remarkably accepting of their current predicament, but hope it will be temporary.
“We’re just trying to get to ‘next,’” Barbour told me. “We’re not asking for that much.”
Lawrence Hardy, Senior Editor