My internship at Miriam’s Kitchen (MK) was an experience that I’m still processing. When I arrived, it wasn’t exactly like I thought it would be, but that wasn’t a bad thing. It was an opportunity for me to wrestle and to learn—to let go of expectations and become a case manager through trial by fire, embracing the mission to end chronic homelessness in D.C., one relationship at a time.
The richest memories I have of MK are in the Dining Room. It’s decorated with art made by guests and even volunteers. A menagerie of sculpture and paintings, the room is lit with the impression of both pain and laughter written on canvas in brilliant paints. From the simplest to the most complex, the art is almost never something I regarded piece by piece. It all goes together. The people first, the tables second, then the food, the paint, the paper, the doors, the walls, the space. It’s beautiful. It’s a sight to behold, and that’s one reason a part of me is glad I never could take photos in the dining room. It wouldn’t mean the same thing as my memories of moments spent chatting with a guest or filling out a SNAP application together.
The dining room isn’t all sunshine. My job was primarily to cultivate trustworthy relationships with guests, to support them through clinical case management (CM) in their housing, health, employment, and financial goals, always while wearing the CM uniform of blue MK t-shirts. The guests of Miriam’s Kitchen live hard lives—most of them live unhoused on the streets and in hidden camps. Their struggles reflect the issues MK face as a provider of low barrier social services. On any given day, we ran out of deodorant, socks, washcloths, razors, hats… and all sizes of men’s pants. Sometimes, it was so noisy, that I couldn’t understand people who were speaking clearly to my face. Occasionally (regretfully), I was a little hangry and couldn’t listen as closely as I should’ve been.
Miriam’s Kitchen takes a people-first approach to breaking the barriers folks face to attaining health and housing. That means everything—language, mission, data-entry, meetings—must answer to a common social-services measuring stick. We, as people, strive to recognize and respect the dignity of the other person. That means no one is a savior. No one needs one person to pick them up. It also means no one is going to give up on our guests. MK will be there when you’re unhoused, they’ll be there when you’re applying for housing, when you get it, mess it up, and end up on the streets again. At MK, they honestly believe that homelessness is a public health problem with a proven solution—housing. And they fight for it, living and breathing in the dining room and on the streets. They also celebrate it. And wait for it. And preach it. And patiently nurture it. Thus, the MK dining room is the healing hub of Foggy Bottom, D.C.
Many of our guests had mental illnesses. Many of our guests had Schizophrenia. We had elderly folks, broken folks, wild folks, up-beat-feel-good folks, and our guests were predominately middle-aged black men. All our guests were poor and often struggling with substance use. Our people-first, strength-based model meant that we strove to recognize the dignity of human autonomy. People usually experience homelessness for compounding reasons and (as I learned in real time with both guests and CMs) “no one experiences homelessness in a vacuum.” But people also make it. They live. They live on the streets, in parks, in hidden communities that have never been raided by the cops, in libraries by day, volunteering by night. They live making decisions crucial to their survival, their employment, their addiction, and their family. They live without “us” (be it liberal-elites or bleeding-heart-do-gooders). They also live among us, invisible. At the subway stations, with cardboard signs or rattling coins in a cup. They live where senators and millionaires walk but hardly anyone looks them in the eye and just says good morning. On most occasions when in conversation with someone living on the street, they say, “God bless you,” or some semblance of the same. Just for making eye contact. For being. For being human.
At MK, we strove for humanness. We didn’t do it perfectly we had a human security guard who wore a vest to protect his chest full of organs, every single day. We had human chefs and volunteers and guests, and case managers. We were not nurses or pastors. And not all of us were therapists. On occasion, the clinical boundary could be hard for me. My first week, I wanted so much to offer a gentle touch and say, “I hear you… I’m so sorry, I know you must be scared…” But I was a case manager.
Being a case manager didn’t mean I couldn’t be compassionate, quite the opposite really. It just meant that I got to work intentionally on the thing I knew from the start I’d need to work on most—boundaries. Professional, caring, healthy boundaries. I’m privileged and grateful to have been in such a supportive place that integrated me into their professional family so organically and holistically, and helped me practice this critical skill with so much grace and candor. I learned what it meant to be a part of MK through several different department lenses, guests’ stories, and moments I experienced myself. The job was inherently exhaustive and energizing at the same time because each day was dynamic. There were some tasks I’d done a hundred times by the third week, but there were mostly tasks that require sleuthing, trial and error, asking for help and sometimes straight up failing and forgiving myself for the mistake enough to try again and improve.
It’s hard not to look at a frail old woman who just repeats over and over “it’s so hot,” “when am I going to get housing? When will it work out?” and think, why hasn’t someone adopted you? What can I do for you? What could I have done? After this particularly difficult interaction, I looked to a senior case manager for advice, but afterward still felt uneasy. I told one of the other case managers (just a couple of years older than me doing a year of service), “I don’t know what I’m doing!” and she said plainly, peacefully, back to me: “I feel like that about working with guests most of the time!” I didn’t expect her to say that, but I appreciated and needed her wisdom and honesty. I had been listening or trying to listen, to the old woman, who seemed to be an immigrant. Half the time I couldn’t tell if she was telling me she wanted to go back to her home state or if she had escaped a war—she spoke so quietly and so strained. She seemed so tired. Just done. Just trying to find a bed somewhere. Anywhere. But that’s not really what she wanted. She didn’t want to spend the night in a shelter. She wanted housing. She wants housing. And I couldn’t give it to her. The funding that MK has been granted is disseminated carefully and systematically, and she had a case manager at another organization that she could and should work with more closely. If I could encourage her to sign a form and get back in touch with them, that would probably be enough. All I could do. Perhaps even the best case management work I could do in that moment.
MK’s mission is to eradicate chronic homelessness in D.C. That’s the goal. It doesn’t happen by just getting a guest into a shelter for the night. It takes multiple teams of hardworking people and inter-agency communication, advocacy, funding, patience, sweat, tears, communication, goal-tracking, motivation, paperwork, hoop-jumping. It’s not easy, and it’s not a one-time gig for eight weeks. This is humbling and energizing work. It is work that is promising only in numbers. In confidence. In critical hope.
Hope put into action fuels the MK Dining Room and the work of clinical case managers. I say that, thinking about my favorite smiles in the dining room thus far, and how they’ve all come from shining faces who will sleep on the streets and parks of D.C. tonight. Some of them in tents, others under bridges. And they persist. They get up and apply for jobs, get themselves to breakfast, take their medication and live life. They smile and bring so much vitality to the community. The MK dining room is truly a blessed place, but it’s only when the table of grace and welcome is extended out of those doors, onto the streets, in the hope and dignity of MK guests and volunteers and staff day and night and night and day after day that it makes real change in the city.
I am proud to be a part of this work, but only in that I remember how much of a blessing it was for me, how much I’ve learned and grown in the MK community. I must remember to practice bringing that critical humanness in doing-life-together stuff with me now that I’m wearing the blue shirt back home in Arkansas. It’s what MK tries to do. Guests and staff, eating and speaking and being themselves—in honest, raw fashion, together with the same goal of healing homelessness.
This summer challenged me to grow my strengths and accept my limitations in the most formative way since high school. I’m discerning ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church and have known for a while that I want to answer the call of doing life and ministry together with folks experiencing illness and homelessness. Sharing life across coffee and paint in the dining room of MK was often tantamount to communion, to Eucharist for me. I’m pursuing professional ministry in emerging, health, and urban contexts and my time at MK solidified this passion and pursuit. My next stop will be seminary, a three-year Master’s program, where I plan to dive deeper into the study of the interconnected challenges of poverty, theology, health, race, and culture, becoming equipped for healing ministry in and out of the walls of the church. I’m grateful beyond words for my time at Miriam’s Kitchen and I take my supervisors’ statement seriously: “you never take off the blue shirt.” It’s in the spirit of the critical hope I honed in that space that I’m committed to doing my part to continue building relationships and extending the table of grace to those deemed invisible in my community here at home. I can’t recommend the SHECP program enough nor thank it aptly for the opportunity to flesh out my call to service serving as an intern case manager in such an incredible community full of dignity and hope.