On a cold Sunday night the fellowship hall of the University Park Church of Christ, located in Hyattsville, Md., was filled with men, women and children watching TV and having supper with a Christmas tree in the background.

University Park Church serves a meal and fellowship to the homeless in Prince George’s County. (Photo by Hamil Harris)

Then, a van pulled up with a family of homeless residents. Members of the family went to a room that was usually used for teaching Sunday School, but was now filled with cots.

Dec. 10 was the first night of a six day mission to house and feed the homeless at University Park, a congregation that is part of a network of churches that take turns providing shelter for homeless residents. The annual program, called Warm Nights, is scheduled to last until Spring.

And for the opening, dinner was a treat as local chef Greg Presbury fixed a pasta dish which was served by church volunteers.

Most homeless shelters in the area open at 7 p.m. and send clients on their way at 7 a.m. This is done with the mindset of letting them look for work.

But, Rev. Nathan Hill, pastor of University Christian Church, also located in Hyattsville, said many people can’t find work for a number of reasons, including lack of a home address, and as a result remain homeless and spend much of the day finding venues to stay warm in without getting into trouble.

“All that the man had done was to take off his socks,” said Hill, who remembers seeing a man being escorted out of the Hyattsville branch of the Prince George’s County Library on a Fall day two years ago.

But now that winter is here the consequences can be worse.

“On a cold day where can homeless people go,” asked Hill, who worked with the same network of churches to create the Prince George’s Plaza Day Center. The center offers a place for homeless residents to go during the day to eat a meal, search for jobs, partake in fellowship or just get out of the cold. The center began in 2016.

As Hill stood in the fellowship hall of the church filled with homeless men and the aroma of turkey, dressings and all of the trimmings, he said his congregation has created a venue where the homeless can come two days week.

“On Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. people can come here to shower, laundry, eat and have a place to be,” he said, adding that since the day center began they have served more than 25O people.

The center is also staffed with two social workers and is supported by nearly a dozen area churches.

Hill said the plight of the homeless reminds him of the story of Mary and Joseph in the New Testament because on the night Jesus was born, “There was no room at the inn for them.”

Donnie Phillips is a client services director at the Community Crisis Services, a local nonprofit organization that helps people who are experiencing crises. The Warm Nights program is operated by the organization. He said about a dozen area congregations take part in the night and the day programs.

“More than anything else is that the day centers allow us to work with people in a variety of fashions,” said Phillips, whose sentiments were echoed by retired social Worker Marcia Mityga as she talked with a Navy veteran who went from being homeless to a residential program.

“I feel like I can make a difference here,” Mityga said. “We helped one man who went from having glaucoma to getting glasses to having surgery.”