And it’s here that he chose to help Miriam’s Kitchen.
“ 'Lived experience’ is the catchphrase that everybody now is using,” Burns told me. That means that the best advocate for fixing what’s broken is someone who has dealt with the broken pieces firsthand.
Last year, Burns, 62, held a unique position at Miriam’s Kitchen, a charity that is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand. He was the nonprofit’s advocacy fellow.
“People with lived experience are part of our steering committee at every meeting, with whom we’re developing strategy, whether that’s deciding what to advocate for or the tactics used,” said Lara Pukatch, chief advocacy officer at Miriam’s Kitchen.
At its most basic, advocacy is lobbying. It is marshaling your forces and your data, then visiting legislators to persuade them to see things your way — and to pass budgets and laws accordingly.
But there’s another way to look at it, one articulated by a previous Miriam’s Kitchen advocacy fellow, Waldon Adams (who died in 2021, along with Rhonda Whitaker, after both were hit by a car in Hains Point).
Adams used to say that advocacy is really just caring about something and then telling people about that thing.
“I love to use that quote,” Pukatch said. “At the end of the day, it’s just caring and telling other people you care.”
Burns had already done some of that with Whitman-Walker Health, supporting the work it does with the LGBTQ community. He turned to Miriam’s Kitchen in 2015, after the apartment he was in became unlivable because of mold. Someone recommended he contact Miriam’s Kitchen, which in addition to providing daily meals from its Foggy Bottom headquarters helps clients who are experiencing homelessness.
Said Burns: “I was like, ‘What is Miriam’s Kitchen? I’m not hungry, so why refer me to a place like that?’ However, I've got to say that they really did come through for me in helping me relocate.”
The advocacy team asked if Burns would be interested in becoming an advocacy fellow. That’s when he realized there was more to learn about Washington.
“It helped me to learn, for instance, some of the inner workings of the D.C. government, particularly as it related to housing,” Burns said.
He learned about the mayor’s budget and the money she set aside to address homelessness. He learned about the D.C. Council committee that oversees such issues, the Committee on Human Services, and how the council can add money to the budget. He met with legislators. He met the mayor.
“Most local folk who have a history of being challenged financially, they aren’t often in those forums,” Burns said.
Last year, Miriam’s Kitchen was among a coalition of groups that helped secure money to lift more than 2,000 people from chronic homelessness. The funds will be raised via a tax increase on the city’s wealthiest residents.
Burns has also been a member of the speakers bureau at Miriam’s Kitchen. I asked if it was difficult to be so open with strangers about his life, whether in front of a government committee or a community organization.
“You don't go through cancer, HIV and issues with decent, safe and affordable housing and not develop some kind of strength and backbone,” he said. “If it happened to you, you know it can happen to somebody else.”
And that’s what Burns hopes his advocacy can do: help somebody else. His advocacy is broad and policy-focused. But it’s also narrow and human-focused. It’s one part testifying to politicians and one part testifying to people he encounters on the streets. Burns mentors individuals experiencing homelessness, telling them that Miriam’s Kitchen helped him and it can help them, too.
“I do let folk know it’s going to take a minute,” he said. “It’s not a quick fix. But if you follow through and are patient, we can get you off the streets.”
You can help Miriam’s Kitchen, too. This is the final week of our annual fund drive. The Washington Post Helping Hand campaign ends Friday. Please give. You can contribute online by visiting posthelpinghand.com. Click where it says “Donate.”
To give by check, write Miriam’s Kitchen, Attn: Development, 2401 Virginia Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20037.
Read more from John Kelly.