After 30 years of meals and support, Miriam’s Kitchen eyes bigger target: end homelessness

As a social worker at Miriam’s Kitchen, Kelly Trimble helps people search for jobs, find medical care and try to get off the streets.

But she said she knows the hot meals and job training programs aren’t enough to end chronic homelessness. “That’s why we advocate for housing first,” she said.

The 30-year-old Foggy Bottom-based organization will launch a city-wide advocacy campaign in January to build support for permanent housing solutions, not just day-to-day help, for many of the 3,500 homeless who visit its soup kitchen each year.

Miriam’s Kitchen has plans to spend nearly $1 million to help achieve its goal of ending chronic homelessness – when individuals with substance addictions, mental or physical illnesses are without shelter for more than a year. The organization dug into its reserves in January to hire a communications director, new fundraising staff and more social workers.

Miriam’s Kitchen president and CEO Scott Schenkelberg said the plan is to rally a coalition of community leaders, nonprofits, hospitals and local businesses to pressure city officials to support permanent housing programs to put an end to chronic homelessness in the District. With the campaign, Schenkelberg said he hopes to raise the profile of an issue that often lands low on the city’s list of priorities.

The group’s advocacy team had its first major breakthrough last spring, when the D.C. Council voted to put $2.2 million into permanent housing programs and social services for about 100 homeless people. About 3,960 D.C. residents live in this type of housing program already, according to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness.

“How could you not be better once you’re housed?” Schenkelberg said. “They may be in that housing program for the rest of their lives, but are they sick, out on the streets, more vulnerable and therefore more likely to die on the streets? No, absolutely not.”

If the city can find homes for its chronically homeless population, it could save as much as $24,000 a year per person, Schenkelberg said. D.C. now pays about $50,000 a year for shelters, emergency medical care, psychiatric care and sometimes incarceration.

Schenkelberg said his organization is also applying to be a social services provider in future public housing projects.

With an 11-year waiting list for affordable housing in the District, Trimble said, the men and women who wind up on the streets can quickly fall into a vicious cycle of long-term homelessness.

She said she is relieved to see Miriam’s Kitchen, located at 2401 Virginia Ave., taking on the larger challenges of homelessness, and explained that the most difficult part of her job is watching people work “really, really hard and they see such little results.”

“It’s really hard to see that every day and it’s really hard to continue to instill hope,” said Trimble, who is part of a team of case managers.

Craig Lynch, 34, who became homeless in June after he lost his job and was evicted, has come to Miriam’s Kitchen every day for the past four months. With help from the organization’s case managers, Lynch created a resume and has been on the hunt for a job.

“I’d like to be out of here by March,” he said. “A lot of the guys that I’ve come across have been in the situation for five, six, seven or 10 years and I take it as they feel like they’re comfortable with it. I’m not comfortable with it.”

Ericka Taylor, executive director of the advocacy group Fair Budget Coalition, said she’s seen success with the city-wide coalition that includes Miriam’s Kitchen.

She said the organization’s goal of ending chronic homelessness is achievable and said the coalition will continue to raise awareness about tangible solutions.

“D.C. has so much wealth, and it’s sort of easy to forget that the gap between the rich and the poor is as large as it is,” Taylor said.

The campaign leaders hope to build off the support from top D.C. officials last spring, including Council members Tommy Wells, D-Ward 6.

As chair of the city’s human services committee, Wells has met with guests at Miriam’s Kitchen to discuss ways to address homelessness in D.C., said that there is a need for more public advocacy on the issue.

Five years ago, he led the push for a housing program through the Council. It initially took 400 of D.C.’s most vulnerable and put them into supportive housing, including about 200 of Miriam’s Kitchen’s regulars.

“There’s always competition for public dollars. So, people need to see that ‘Housing First’ gets expanded,” Wells said. “It’s an expensive program but it’s worth it.”

– Kristen Barnes and Ariana Mushnick contributed to this report.

Updated Nov. 25 to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet misspelled the name of Mark Schenkelberg on some references. We regret this error.

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