Adults and children who are trying to survive being homeless aren’t just far away in some remote corner of the world. They are struggling in your city, sometimes right outside your front door.
“On a given night in the District, there are nearly 1,500 individuals and families living on the streets in shelters who are considered chronically homeless,” according to The Way Home.
“There are 66 communities in the United States who have ended homelessness,” said Mei Powers, chief development officer of Miriam’s Kitchen, a nonprofit working to secure permanent housing for people in D.C.. “People think of homelessness as this inevitable thing, but there’s a solution. We just have to commit to it.”
The solution, already carried out in multiple American cities, was housing first.
Getting people into permanent housing is surprisingly cost-effective, Powers said. Miriam’s Kitchen partnered with an advisory board who did a study on the costs of chronic homelessness in the D.C. area. When they factored in police interactions, ambulance rides, emergency room visits, nights in a shelter and inpatient hospitalization, the average price tag was more than $40,000 per person, per year.
The cost of Permanent Supportive Housing? About $16,000.
“Studies across the United States have shown that the cost of inaction is more than the solution,” Powers said.
The results of the Permanent Supportive Housing program were startling. After one year, 97 percent of the participants were still in their homes. Housing gave the chronically homeless the chance to gain employment, receive treatment for their mental health and recover from lingering illness.
Wesley Thomas, a 56-year-old D.C. resident, became homeless after dropping out of the University of the District of Columbia in 1987. He drifted from Lafayette Park to Washington Circle, sleeping on the streets and washing up in the park.
“The shelters were too dangerous because people could come in and shoot up the shelters, so I slept on the street where it was safer,” Thomas said. “The money I used panhandling I used to get drugs. I had more than 30 friends die on the street, from drugs or exposure. I decided I didn’t want to end up dead on a park bench somewhere.”
After 29 years on the street, Miriam’s Kitchen helped Thomas get into permanent housing.
“On April 28, 2017, I got my apartment,” Thomas said. “It was amazing because I had peace of mind. I could cook. I could take a shower anytime I wanted. On the street, you could only take a shower maybe two times a month.”
Today, Thomas volunteers at the Capitol Area Food Bank and co-chairs meetings for the Smart Recovery organization. He’s been clean 31 months.
“I’m helping other homeless people,” Thomas said. “I helped my girlfriend get her apartment and four other people in my building.”
So what can you do to support the homeless in your area?
“People are naive to homelessness,” Thomas said. “It’s one thing to read an article about homeless people; it’s another thing to experience it.”
Volunteer. You can volunteer at Miriam’s Kitchen. Kitchen volunteers are asked to commit one shift per month, but there are other opportunities available as well: distributing toiletries, giving haircuts, leading a writing group or assisting with art therapy.
Talk to homeless people. “It’s one thing to give people a piece of bread, it’s another thing to talk to them,” Thomas said. “When you’re homeless, you feel like you’re not considered a human being. And when someone talks to you, it feels like you’re a normal person.”
Donate. Through their matching program, one $5 donation to Miriam’s Kitchen provides 12 meals to their guests. A hundred dollars covers the cost to establish residency and identification for four homeless people, and donations upward of $1,500 cover the cost to get a resident into their own place.
For Thomas, his main objective is to pay it forward.
“For what I’ve been through, I’m not even supposed to be here,” Thomas said. “This new life is a gift and I want to use it wisely. I want to make other people aware.”
When it comes to a home, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The pieces are simple: a kitchen, a locking door, a bathroom, a mailbox. But together these things are essential for people to end the cycle of homelessness, and Miriam’s Kitchen is doing just that.