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Miriamís Kitchen takes small steps, bridges wide gap

(Published July 26,1999)

By ERICA WINTER

Special to The Common Denominator

Sometimes we see them and sometimes we don't, but they are rarely absent. Homeless people are part of every landscape in this city. Although there are hundreds of people who work hard to solve the problems of homelessness in the big picture, sometimes transformation of one person's life starts with something very basic and personal -- like breakfast.

This is the thinking behind Miriam's Kitchen, which has been serving a hot breakfast to about 150 homeless Washingtonians every weekday morning for the past 15 years. Miriam's has also greatly expanded its social services over the past four years to provide clients with links to badly needed social services.

Miriam's closet provides men's clothing to clients. There is a staff social worker who connects clients to social services, from providing counseling on the spot to getting clients to medial facilities to simply helping the client get some identification. Miriam's is the mailing address for many of its clients -- without which they would not be able to get their Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare or Veterans Administration benefits. There is also an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter at Miriamís.

The "hard-core homeless" is how executive director Ruth Dickey describes Miriamís clients. These are the people with the shopping carts, sleeping on storm grates, begging for change. Most of the people who come for breakfast have problems with mental illness or substance abuse, have been on the streets for more than two years, and sleep on the streets -- not even in shelters.

"You have to see success in a different way" with this group of people, Dickey said, such as the first time a client looks up and says hello or agrees to join a program. Even so, Miriam's successes are remarkable.

Miriam's Kitchen attempts to feed the body and the soul of its clients. For the past five years, the Miriam's Writer's Forum has met twice a week to give homeless men and women a chance to express their feelings and share their experiences. An anthology of their work called "After Breakfast" sold 600 copies last year. Also, the forum held 16 public readings of participantsí work last year and three so far this year.

"There is profound isolation for people on the street," Dickey said. One member of the forum, a college-educated man who has been on the street for almost five years, once asked Dickey for a dictionary, saying "I feel like I'm forgetting the English language...sometimes I forget I'm here."

Miriam's also has a visual arts program, which held its first exhibition last summer at George Washington University's Colonnade Gallery. The staff and volunteers at Miriam's also reach out to the community to talk about the roots of homelessness and those who are suffering in it. Greg Hill, Miriam's outreach worker, is also one of Miriamís success stories Ė he uses his experience as a former client to talk to people living on the street to tell them about the breakfast program and encourage them to stop in.

The core of Miriam's programs is breakfast, which is prepared and served by volunteers every morning from 6 to 8 a.m. Miriam's Kitchen gets its food from the D.C. Central Kitchen, the Capital Area Food Bank, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Commodities Program, individual donations and some purchased products.

Help sometimes comes form unexpected sources. Dickey tells the story that while loaded down with tablecloths and decorations for Miriam's Kitchen's 15th anniversary breakfast, she recently took a taxi to work. The driver, wondering where the party was at 5 a.m., asked her where she was going. When he dropped her off at the door, he called after her, jumped out of his cab and gave her $25. "Here's for your anniversary!" he said.

"Miriam's brings out incredible acts of generosity," Dickey said. "I'm always awed by people who are willing to give."

Miriam's Kitchen is located in Foggy Bottom at the corner of 24th and G streets NW, in the basement of Western Presbyterian Church. For information on volunteering or making donations, call (202) 452-8926.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator