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Keller Grants Help Meet Urgent Demands

Two pillars of Capitol Hill’s nonprofit community, both at the forefront of tackling the coronavirus pandemic’s enormous challenges, have each received a $20,000 Arnold F. Keller Jr. Grant from the Capitol Hill Community Foundation (CHCF). The grants were awarded to Everyone Home DC in 2020 and to Serve Your City this year to support their extraordinary response to the growing needs of at-risk and unhoused Capitol Hill residents.

“We chose these organizations because they are the most active on the ground in addressing our community’s most urgent pandemic issues,” said Mark Weinheimer, chair of the CHCF Keller Grant Committee. “Everyone Home DC is all about securing permanent housing and providing other vital services for our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness, while Serve Your City has created a hub for gathering and delivering donations of goods and financial support to the people who need them the most.”

In March 2020, when the pandemic’s implications were only just coming into focus, chronic homelessness was already one of CHCF’s top concerns. In the past year, the pandemic has increased both the size of the unhoused population and the scope of its needs. In some tent encampments across the city, the number of people living unsheltered has doubled. Some of those residents are newly unhoused, while others have left shelters to avoid the risk of contracting COVID-19. And the pandemic has forced the closure or curtailed the hours of many places frequented by people experiencing homelessness — including libraries, meal programs, and day centers.

Everyone Home DC Street Outreach Team on Barracks Row. Photo Credit: Everyone Home DC

As the effects of the economic crisis took an even greater toll on people without housing, the Keller Grant Committee looked to Everyone Home DC as a key resource. The organization’s Street Outreach Team meets people living without shelter wherever they are to provide necessities that promote their basic dignity, well-being and even survival. 

“This global health crisis has exposed now more than ever that housing truly is health care,” said Karen Cunningham, executive director of Everyone Home DC. “People experiencing homelessness are at high risk of COVID-19 exposure. Our unhoused neighbors are particularly vulnerable to exposure and complications, due to comorbidities and their inability to take even the most basic safety precautions, like washing their hands regularly, maintaining distance from other people and staying home if they don’t feel well.”

Everyone Home DC Executive Director Karen Cunningham said that the new name gives people a better idea of the mission of the organization, putting home at the center of their work. Courtesy: Everyone Home DC

Those risks have created an even more acute need for an expanded range of supplies among people who have limited access to showers, bathrooms and laundry services. The Keller Grant helps the Street Outreach Team provide items like travel-sized hand sanitizer so that people can keep their hands clean, extra undergarments for people who are unable to do their laundry, body wipes to replace showers, face masks to help stop the spread of the virus, and blankets and outerwear for keeping people warm outdoors.

For some Street Outreach clients, the snacks and water that the program provides are their only food source beyond the breakfasts served by Everyone Home DC at Capitol Hill United Methodist Church. The program is using Keller Grant funds to improve the variety and nutritional value of its snacks, in some cases even accommodating special dietary restrictions.

The Street Outreach team goes out to meet chronically homeless neighbors to help address their needs, supplemented by volunteer members of the Homeless Assistance Response Team (HART). Photo: Everyone Home DC

Most important, through the Street Outreach Team’s face-to-face engagements, Everyone Home DC has been able to continue assisting unhoused neighbors through the process of obtaining permanent housing, including paying for vital documents, apartment application fees and transportation to appointments. “We will continue our work until every one of them has a safe, affordable and comfortable home,” Cunningham said.

Serve Your City
Beyond the people who are experiencing homelessness, many who have managed to maintain their housing in the wake of the pandemic still have urgent needs. That spurred Maurice Cook, executive director of Serve Your City, to mobilize Momma’s Safe Haven, the TraRon Center, ONE DC, Training Grounds Inc., the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, local churches and ultimately more than 75 other community groups to form Ward 6 Mutual Aid. This network not only rallies volunteers to donate supplies, but also identifies the people who need them through its relationships in the community.

“There is enough love from the people to take care of everyone in this city,” Cook said. “Our work is to capture that and bring it together. We are building the world that we deserve.”

Maurice Cook, Executive Director, Serve Your City. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Elizabeth Dranitzke, Serve Your City/Ward 6 Mutual Aid

For more than a century, mutual aid networks have formed to help redistribute local resources to fill unmet needs, based on a fundamental belief that everyone in the community has something to contribute. Following Serve Your City’s motto of “solidarity, not charity,” Ward 6 Mutual Aid brings together individuals and organizations that have something to offer for the good of the entire community.

As the Ward 6 Mutual Aid convenor, Serve Your City identifies specific needs, determines who is experiencing those needs, and figures out who has the expertise, resources and connections to deliver the necessary funding and support. For example, the People for Fairness Coalition has long-standing relationships with people living in D.C.’s encampments and lends a crucial understanding of their culture to facilitate outreach. Kajeet is an internet provider with well-established capabilities for providing wi fi hotspots. And the TraRon Center already works with students, providing connections with youths who can benefit from extracurricular activities.

In just one year, Ward 6 Mutual Aid delivered $50,000 worth of food and 50,000 masks to thousands of families, including weekly distributions to 250 people living in tent encampments across the city. The program also has distributed 500 digital devices and refurbished laptops and purchased 50 hotspot devices for students who were suddenly attending school at home. That internet access is also vital to people searching for jobs online and seniors attempting to schedule appointments for COVID-19 vaccinations.

In addition, Ward 6 Mutual Aid augments Serve Your City’s programs, which for more than a decade have provided life-changing experiences for Black and Brown children from under-resourced families. “We focus especially on our young people,” said Cook, “because, unfortunately, it has been accepted as a status quo that there are some young people born into this world with nothing, and other young people have everything. That’s just a world we can’t accept.”

Serve Your City/Ward 6 Mutual Aid food distribution at Ellen Wilson. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Elizabeth Dranitzke, Serve Your City/Ward 6 Mutual Aid

Last year, Serve Your City organized a virtual tutoring program to help about 80 D.C. students with online learning. By the fall, the program had grown to 260 tutors working with 130 students, spending nearly 1,300 hours on video calls. In addition, Serve Your City places students into the Ward 6 Mutual Aid network’s high-quality, virtual and socially distant enrichment programs. Last fall, 68 students participated in 15 classes — at no cost to them — through Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Indivisible Arts Collective, Black Girls Code, Circle Yoga, Trapeze School, Sprout Therapeutic Riding and Education Center and other programs.

CHCF grants, including the Keller Grant, total from $400,000 to $500,000 a year and are entirely funded through the contributions of residents, businesses and friends of Capitol Hill. Every dollar raised is donated to organizations that enhance the community’s educational programming for children and youths; social services; arts, culture and recreation; and neighborhood beautification.

To learn more about the Capitol Hill Community Foundation, visit www.capitolhillcommunityfoundation.com. To get involved with the Keller grantees, visit Everyone Home DC at https://everyonehomedc.org and Serve Your City at www.serveyourcitydc.org

Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill.

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