As you might guess, an organization named “Miriam’s Kitchen” began as a soup kitchen when it opened in 1983 to serve the homeless in Washington D.C.
But now, as one of the most important homeless support facilities in the area, Miriam’s Kitchen has spread out to provide housing and other needs, not just food.
“We recognized pretty early on, while it’s great to give people a meal, and perhaps a better start to their day, their issues aren’t just about food insecurity,” Scott Schenkelberg, CEO of Miriam’s Kitchen, said in an interview with Gifts for the Homeless. “It’s about access to housing or a whole host of other resources.”
Through Miriam’s Kitchen, hundreds of men and women – the organization calls them “guests”– have moved to housing around the city. DC’s “Permanent Supportive Housing” and other programs have just recently boosted the number of people who will be able to afford housing.
As its housing component grew 10 years ago, an innovation at Miriam’s Kitchen, dubbed “housing first,” overcame some barriers that kept some experiencing homelessness from getting into housing. Sobriety and employment requirements, as well as addiction and mental health issues, have been obstacles.
“Instead of all these barriers, the ‘housing first’ model turned it on its head and we said, you know what? You just need housing,” Schenkelberg said. “Once you get into housing, we will work with you to try and help you have a happy, healthy life. That’s really what it was. It sounds so simple, but at the time it was revolutionary because housing was considered such a scarce and costly resource. If you’re going to see people get healthier and happier, the only way is through housing.”
As the housing component at Miriam’s Kitchen grows, its other services, including food and clothing, have continued. Gifts for the Homeless has been a steady partner for the organization.
“Gifts for the Homeless has really been a huge lifeline to us and our guests,” said Claire Fishman, a case manager. “Most of our guests stay outside. Without coats, thermals, gloves, and other supplies from Gifts for the Homeless, many would have no way to protect themselves during hypothermia season.”
Fishman added, “Beyond basic safety, being able to give people new, quality clothes also help our goal of treating people with dignity. And it helps us build trust with our guests as well, strengthening relationships that are essential to working toward housing.”
As with other organizations, the pandemic scrambled some of its activities. “We moved all of our services outside, for or the meals and the social services department,” Fishman said. “We set up some tents, including a few tents in the church courtyard, and we serve all the meals outside to-go.”
Miriam’s Kitchen resides at the Western Presbyterian Church in D.C., very close to the Watergate, a luxury apartment complex. During the pandemic Miriam’s Kitchen’s meals were served outdoors, while tents and bathroom trailers were nearby. The closeness made for a striking juxtaposition between the wealthy and the homeless.
“I don’t know if it’s because people are just being more compassionate because of the pandemic,” said Schenkelberg. “I’ve gotten almost no complaints from neighbors. We have donors and volunteers who live in the Watergate and in the surrounding building.”
“We sometimes have mixed reactions from neighbors, but they’re definitely nice neighbors,” said Claire Fishman, a manager at Miriam’s Kitchen. “We try to be good neighbors in the area.”
Over time, Schenkelberg says he has seen a reduction in the numbers of those who experience homelessness.
“If you live in DC or live in the DC area, you walk around the city and you see a lot of tents all over the place,” he said. “So often I get asked the question, ‘It seems like there are a lot more [homeless] people now, what’s going on?’ And in truth, the data is that the number is going down.”
Schenkelberg concluded, “I hate to say it, but it’s easier to not see that individual with all their bags on a park bench, than it is to not see that individual with all their bags in a big blue tent. So I think, when all the big blue tents are clustered together in an area, it’s a much more striking visual. It gives you visual information that doesn’t actually correspond with the decreasing number of people experiencing homelessness.”