The door is always open at the Hermano Pedro DC Day Shelter at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in DC’s Columbia Heights.
When other shelters push people back onto the street at 7 in the morning, homeless people can come to Hermano Pedro for food, first aid, showers, clean clothes, and bilingual social services. There’s someone on hand to do crisis intervention for addicts or people with mental illness.
Hermano Pedro is a melting pot—one of the only programs that attract homeless people across racial and cultural lines. “Here everybody can feel at home,” says shelter founder Luis “Lucho” Vasquez. “We work with those who have fallen between the cracks and have no place left to go.”
Vasquez, a graduate of Bethesda–Chevy Chase High and Catholic University, went on to earn his master’s in social work at Howard University. Then he went to Guatemala to volunteer at a hospital named for Hermano Pedro, a saint known for his work and his acceptance of all people. Vasquez returned to his home city determined to make a difference. He persuaded Catholic Charities to give him $500 and a basement to start the shelter, lured a chef and other volunteers to help, handed out fliers at other shelters, and opened for business in December 2003.
The first day, Hermano Pedro had 38 visitors. Now 130 to 180 people come daily.
Hermano Pedro has more funding from Catholic Charities as well as help with insurance and administration. There’s a grant from the United Planning Organization and funds from the DC government.
Vasquez also started DC’s Harriet Tubman Women’s Center. “There are never enough services for women,” he says.
If he had his way, Vasquez would see shelters go out of business and homeless people moved into supported housing with social services to help them get back on their feet. But he’s happy to keep Hermano Pedro going and growing. “I’ve been doing this for 15 years,” he says. “When I’m helping someone, I’m the one gaining strength. I do it because it feels good to me.”