DC Central Kitchen helps homeless with food and work skills

Shuffling in a disorganized line, disheveled men and women socialize on 2nd Street NW amid the drab buildings and chain-link fences that surround DC Central Kitchen, an organization that makes food for schools and homeless shelters. The neighborhood seems far from the U.S. Capitol, but is located only a mile away.

Tucked in corners, hidden down stairs and stored in row houses, there are three such organizations in Washington that aim to help low-income and homeless individuals pull themselves out of poverty.

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The homeless population shifts often, and counts are rarely accurate. The National Coalition to End Homelessness estimates there are about 13,000 people without a home in Washington, D.C., making it the eighth largest homeless population in the country.

But DC Central Kitchen is more than just meals on wheels. In addition to making 5,200 hot meals every day for local shelters, it also trains and helps at-risk individuals find and keep culinary jobs.

Marianne Ali, director of culinary training, has worked with the organization for 15 years, which is funded by donations and revenue from its Fresh Start catering endeavors.

“These are people that have been in prison for 20 years, [who have] been on drugs,” she said. “These are people who have never had a job in their lives.”

Yet the average job-retention rate is nearly 80 percent, with a three-year recidivism rate of less than 2.5 percent, compared to a national 41 percent rate calculated by the National Institute of Justice in 1994, the agency’s most recent study.

Each year, about 100 people are enrolled in the program. In 2011, 80 graduated. DC Central Kitchen spends $10,000 training each student, and more than 80 percent found employment post-graduation, where wages average around $11 per hour.

“When a student graduates … they’re getting a job, they’re spending money. They’re paying taxes, they’re putting money back into the economy — they’re no longer taking it,” Ali said.

Judith Hall, 44, was in prison for 14 years after being convicted of armed robbery, and graduated from the program in 2009.

“I had been separated from society for so long,” said Hall, a District native. Then someone came to her halfway house and talked about a cooking class.

“I never knew what it meant to have an apartment, a checking account, something in my name,” she added.

Entering prison when her two daughters were hardly old enough to walk, the ordeal forced her to take responsibility.

“I didn’t want them to follow the same path I did,” she said confidently, lifting up her baseball hat to pat her shaved head.
N Street Village, located off the trendy 14th Street NW neighborhood, focuses its emphasis on women. As of January 2011, it was serving 60 percent of the single homeless women in D.C., according to its year-end report.

Tina Compton, 43, speaks slow and deliberately, consistent with her New Orleans upbringing. Having graduated with a food-handling certificate, she is now applying to work in restaurants.

“Without help from N Street, I don’t think I could have completed [the course],” she said simply. “I am antsy.”

Director of Programs Ann McCreedy said that one in four women has no income when they come to N Street, with an average client income of $644 per month. “While women are living with us, 20 percent increase their income,” she added, earning an extra $562 per month on average. Eighty-nine percent of those placed in jobs by N Street keep their jobs for at least six months.

“A lot of people came in after the recession hit — but not immediately. … They started trickling in about 2010 after all their other coping mechanisms gave out,” McCreedy said.

Further north in Washington, the Community Council for the Homeless at Friendship Place blends into its surroundings. In an old house, a large wooden door opens to a warm atmosphere, where the smell of pastries and coffee fill the air.

The front area is filled with mostly men who sit or mill around, waiting their turn to access one of the many services the half-public, half-private enterprise offers. The Aim Hire program, a fairly new arm of the organization, began last year.

“What we do most effectively is eliminate barriers,” said Program Director Jermaine Hampton. They focus on an individualized approach to help the homeless pull themselves out of the system, Hampton says, because everyone’s situation is different.

“People have heard ‘no’ so many times. We’re always finding a way to say ‘yes,’ ” he added.

Once jobs are secured, the program has lists of affordable apartments in the District — costing about $700 to $900 per month — to which they can refer participants. A fund pays for the first 90 days of rent so that money earned can be saved, and consumers are more likely to keep housing.

Ray Claiborne, 52, first came to Friendship Place for the free coffee, in denial about a drinking problem and his homelessness.

“After about a year, six months ago, I said, ‘Hold up, this place is for help, not just for coffee.’ I caught myself … I decided to get my coffee later and get some help here,” he said in an almost lyrical voice. “I hadn’t seen the bright side of life in about 25 years. Right now, my life is sunshine every day.”

Claiborne has been sober for three months now, volunteering for the organization and making money by cutting lawns. The money depends on the weather, but he makes about $60 to $200 per day. He is also trying to get a job as a driver for a grocery store.

Even though he had friends who mocked him for getting sober, Claiborne said he’s found confidence in himself.

Larry Folk, the division director, acknowledged that the act of work, of a routine, can make a person feel more engaged in society.

“People really don’t believe that they can have any different,” he said. “Work is such an integral part of all of our lives, and so many people are shut out for such simple reasons.”

“That’s all I wanted, to live right. To wake up in the morning and not have to worry about things,” Claiborne said. “It was 10 years ’til I had a good night’s sleep. When I was drinking, I would wake up, didn’t know which way to go. Now I just jump up.”

Hampton jumps in, “You’re at peace, that’s what it is.”