Pete Pichaske mug

By PETE PICHASKE — On a bitterly cold night in late January, a couple of dozen men enjoyed a hot dinner and a cot to sleep on in the warm basement of the University Park Church of the Brethren.

Most of the men were homeless, spending the night in the church to escape the frigid temperatures. The others were volunteers, there to serve dinner, clean up or spend the night as chaperones.

The overnight stay was part of Safe Haven, a 30-year-old, cold-weather shelter for homeless men. Held annually from late November through early March, Safe Haven operates out of a rotating group of 15 churches in central Prince George’s County and is staffed entirely by volunteers.

The homeless men get a cot to sleep on, a free hot dinner and breakfast. The volunteers, meanwhile, get a satisfying, heartwarming, often eye-opening experience.

It’s hard to say which group gets more out of the arrangement.

Finding volunteers can be difficult, especially those willing to spend a night or two away from home, said the Rev. Kim McDowell, pastor of the Church of the Brethren. But afterwards, she said, they’re always happy they did it.

“They really enjoy meeting the men, hearing some of their stories — just being there,” she said. “This year, the overnight people were the ones speaking most positively about their experience.”

Michael Hagerty knows that feeling. Hagerty helps coordinate Safe Haven at St. Jerome Catholic Church, in Hyattsville, which hosted the shelter this month. This is only his third year as a volunteer, but already he’s hooked.

“These are people we don’t often interact with, and we get to hear their stories, what they’re going through,” he explained. “It broadens your insights into the world beyond your normal day-to-day life. It gives you an appreciation of the challenges they face.”

Lois Jones, director of the Safe Haven program for Help by Phone Ltd., the non-profit organization that runs it, speaks glowingly of the volunteers.

“They are tremendous people,” she says. “Very caring, very dedicated to what they are doing, interested in helping their fellow person. … I could not have a better group of people.”

Speaking as one of those volunteers, I don’t know if I’d go that far. But I know exactly what McDowell and Hagerty are talking about.

I’ve been a volunteer with Safe Haven for the past 20 years, working at a trio of local churches: Church of the Brethren, Riverdale Presbyterian, in University Park, and University Christian, in Hyattsville. I coordinated the effort at Riverdale Presbyterian for several years, but stepped down from that role this year, tired of fretting over having enough volunteers, dealing with occasional squabbles and the unending logistical challenges.

But I wasn’t ready to give up cold turkey, so this winter I agreed to spend a couple of overnights at two different churches.

I was glad I did. I reconnected with a couple of the homeless guys I’d seen in the program for years and who are very nearly friends. I got more appreciative smiles and heartfelt thank-you’s than I usually get in an entire year. And, yes, I heard the stories of the down-on-their-luck men who inhabit a different universe than mine, even as we live in the same neighborhood.

I came away with that rosy, good feeling that McDowell mentioned. And in these troubled, divisive times, I also came away with the sense that if more men and women in my shoes could spend more time with the people in these homeless men’s shoes, some of those troubles and divides just might be bridged.

Pete Pichaske recently retired from 40-plus years as a local journalist, most recently as news editor of the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier. He lives in University Park.