Breakfast at Miriam’s

At 6:30 in the morning, Wood (last name withheld) is standing in the cold outside Western Presbyterian Church, talking with his friends and selling cigarettes – two for a quarter – as he waits for the doors of Miriam’s Kitchen to open. Normally the dining room would be open for business now, but things are behind schedule and the crowd of about 80 people is growing restless. Wood says he was homeless for five years, during which he ate at Miriam’s almost every day. Even now that he’s managed to secure government housing on a small disability pension, Wood is still a Miriam’s regular.

“So I know I’ll eat today, at least,” he explains, as he counts his quarters one more time while the doors open and everyone heads in.

Miriam’s Kitchen, located in the basement of the 2401 Virginia Ave. church has been providing free breakfast five days a week since it opened in 1983. When the doors open, the typical cold cereals, oatmeal and juice are ready for those who can’t wait for the prepared meal; yet, it’s at 7 a.m., when the buffet line opens, that Miriam’s distinguishes itself. Alongside the french toast and fruit salad are trays of lentil stew with rice and curried zucchini. Steve Badt, director of kitchen operations and volunteer services, said items like these are morning staples here.

“At a lot of shelters or other food programs, (breakfast food) is all they serve in the morning – powdered eggs, salty home fries, whatever. That doesn’t take into account how important nutrition is, especially for people who are exposed to the elements all day,” Badt said. “For some of these guys, this is the only meal they’ll eat today. So we have more of a brunch program, I guess, to give them things that’ll be good for them, stuff they’ll want to eat.”

The kitchen dances between organizational precision and madness the morning of Dec. 18, as the day’s eight volunteers scramble to replenish the buffet line, serve patrons and cook enough food to satisfy the appetites of the nearly 200 expected clients. With such a demanding audience, it’s a high-stress environment on a normal day, to say nothing of being shorthanded.

“This batch of curried vegetables’ not as good as the last,” one patron complains. Another demands to know why he can’t have more rice with his stew. Yet another asks a volunteer if she’ll pick the meat out of the stew for him.

Neither the stress of the kitchen nor the demands of his patrons phases Badt, however – he’s used to it. Badt came to Miriam’s Kitchen after eight years as a chef in a Georgetown restaurant and says he deliberately tries to recreate that environment here, both in terms of organization and what he leads his patrons to expect.

“I thrive on the high stress, the go-go-go, and I want the volunteers to get into it, too,” Badt said, adding that workers have a sense of ownership of their work. “We do things from scratch, we use volunteer recipes, so sometimes things don’t turn out as good as they have in the past.”

So what happens when a dish doesn’t turn out right and the patrons complain? Badt said that’s when his pride as a chef comes into play.

“I take it as a compliment that they want better, that they have expectations,” he said. “Some places, it’s ‘Here’s your eggs, here’s your toast, be thankful.’ I don’t agree with that (philosophy) at all.”

Despite being shorthanded, most of the kitchen’s volunteers are regulars, and the dance runs its course smoothly until 8 a.m., when the last piece of french toast disappears and most of the hall has had seconds.

As the roll-top buffet cover comes down, the volunteers lean against the wall for a moment, exhausted. But they look satisfied, and most of them say they are looking forward to their next visit.

Badt, who manages food donations and coordinates volunteers in addition to his morning kitchen duties, said there are about 40 regular volunteer groups at Miriam’s and that the program currently has a waiting list for volunteers.

Today most of the volunteers are part of a corporate group from General Dynamics, but groups from a wide range of religious and political organizations – as well as student groups from GW – also contribute to the program.

GW senior Meredith Weinberg has been organizing monthly service trips to Miriam’s for the past two years through GW Hillel. She began her involvement with the kitchen through the Miriam’s Dialogue program, which meets after breakfast on Thursdays and brings students and Miriam’s clients together to share creative writing. The creative writing groups at Miriam’s kitchen produced their third anthology, “Soft Concrete Stairs,” in 2002.

Weinberg said she enjoyed Miriam’s Dialogue because “it gives (students) a chance to interact with the homeless and get to understand them.”

“Just because they’re homeless doesn’t mean they don’t have intellectual things to say,” she added.

When her class schedule conflicted with the after-breakfast program, Weinberg began coming in earlier to help with breakfast, and she recruited others to come with her.

“When I try to recruit people and I get to the part about having to be there at 6 a.m., they’re like, ‘No way.’ But I think that the fact that it’s so early makes it mean more,” she said, adding that, in a sense, the 6 a.m. start time is convenient since it’s sure not to conflict with classes or other activities.

Miriam’s Dialogue is just one of the non-breakfast services that Miriam’s provides. Volunteers provide mail service and free toiletries and help clients get identification, legal help and medical attention. They also assist with writing resumes and getting job referrals.

The expansion of programs at Miriam’s reflects an increase in its client base – and an increase in overall homelessness. According to Executive Director Scott Schenkelberg, the average number of clients per day rose from 150 in 2002 to 195 in 2003, partially because of a 6 percent increase in district-wide homelessness.

In response to this increase, Schenkelberg and the rest of Miriam’s staff have increased their services, hiring additional after-breakfast case workers who, according to Director of Social Services Catherine Crum, provide service to about 60 clients a day. Miriam’s recently opened up “Arnold’s Place,” a transitional house for clients who are ready to make the final step from homelessness to joining the conventional workforce. None of this comes easy, however.

“Every day I wake up and wonder where the money is going to come from,” Schenkelberg said.

Miriam’s receives only $1,200 a year in government aid and must rely on churches, individuals, the United Way and special events like the upcoming “Hoops for the Homeless” basketball tournament for the remainder of its operating budget.

Schenkelberg noted that about 50 percent of clients are mentally ill, and about 50 percent are substance abusers, with some overlap between the two groups. This means that sometimes providing a hot meal is all Miriam’s can do for a client, a fact widely acknowledged by the rest of Miriam’s staff. But acknowledgement doesn’t make this fact any easier to deal with.

“Boundaries are important for any nonprofit organization,” Badt said. “Sometimes it comes down to recognizing what you can and can’t do for people. That can be hard. That can be really hard.”

Whatever boundaries the folks at Miriam’s find themselves facing, they remain wholly committed to the ideals set by Miriam’s founders more than 20 years ago – that everyone, no matter how poor they are, or how they got there, will have something warm to eat waiting for them at Miriam’s Kitchen.

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