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D.C. nonprofit Miriam's Kitchen changes its focus

Saturday - 10/19/2013, 5:43pm  ET

Miriam's Kitchen, a nonprofit that has been providing meals, case management and mental health treatment to individuals in need for the past 30 years in the District, is now shifting its focus to chronic homelessness in the nation's capital.

The nonprofit, housed in the stately Western Presbyterian Church in Foggy Bottom, views its new mission as a moral imperative — and achievable thanks to the District's permanent supportive housing program known as Housing First, according to Scott Schenkelberg, president and CEO of the organization.

Miriam's Kitchen hopes to play a matchmaker's role in bringing more awareness to the cause. It aims now to first provide housing for chronically homeless individuals and then address the underlying causes that put them on the street in the first place, including mental health issues, addiction and poverty.

While Schenkelberg said the group was finding success with its initial mission of direct food and mental health services, it kept getting requests for housing that it could never seem to meet on its own.

"What we saw was that when Housing First started on a large scale in the District several years ago, that within a year of its launch, we got 200 of our long-term guests into housing," Schenkelberg said.

The key to achieving its new goal, according to Schenkelberg, will depend on the organization's ability to enlist local leaders across the Washington-area community from health care, business, nonprofits and local government. Miriam's Kitchen has already spent $500,000 from its own reserves in the first year on advocacy and lent management time to District agencies for the Housing First program, but said it still needs institutional investors to keep the effort going.

"The truth is whether we think about it or not, everybody pays a cost for homelessness. Whether it be shelters, jails, hospitals or other health care systems, they are all incurring the cost of people being homeless," Schenkelberg said. "The Housing First model is actually cheaper than all of these other systems that are providing emergency room visits, inpatient hospitalizations and other expensive services."

The concept is not new. The Housing First model was developed by Sam Tsemberis, a New York University psychiatrist in 1992, and cities have implemented it across the country. District leaders brought it here in 2008 and, within the first three years, helped build more than 1,200 housing units with the goal, still ambitious by today's measures, of building 2,500 units of permanent supportive housing by 2015.

David Berns, director of D.C. Department of Human Services, said the city has doubled its local investment in the program. Despite facing a loss of federal funding, it is "absolutely committed not only to the philosophy of Housing First but to implementation and continued expansion of those efforts."

Berns said he welcomes Miriam's Kitchen's new work in bringing awareness to the program. He said the nonprofit is playing an important role in selecting the right assessment tools for homeless individuals and connecting them with appropriate services and housing opportunities.

"Everybody has to play a part, and I know none of us can do it alone," Berns said. "It is going to take the full partnership of all of us to make this a reality."

Schenkelberg hopes its revised mission helps better coordinate efforts and services among government agencies and nonprofit providers.

"We are trying to enlist those unlikely allies — people who pay a cost for homelessness and don't really know it now," Schenkelberg said. "Either side of the equation, whether it is logical, ethical, emotional, you win. If you get more people into housing it is cheaper. If you get more people into housing, it feels like the right thing to do."

© 2013 American City Business Journals, Inc.