In the time before — before her apartment flooded, forcing her out of it; before her family and friends had stopped letting her crash with them; before she spent winter nights crisscrossing the city, asleep on Metrobuses — Sheila White had never heard of Miriam’s Kitchen. She’d had no reason to know about the charity in Foggy Bottom that feeds hungry people and helps them find homes.
White hadn’t had the easiest life — from ages 2 to 9 she was in and out of Junior Village, the children’s home in Southeast — but it wasn’t until 2013 that she found herself without a place to live. A pipe broke in her apartment, flooding it and destroying her possessions. For a year, White stayed with different relatives — a few days here, a few days there — until they tired of being hosts.
For a while, she stayed in Lincoln Park.
“I would just watch the people play with their dogs and their kids and be like: ‘Why can’t I be like that again?’ ” she said.
Then White went to her old neighborhood in Southeast, sleeping in building vestibules. She figured if she should die in the night, someone would be able to recognize her.
“If something happened to me, at least somebody could identify my body and say, ‘Well, I know this lady right here,’ ” she said.
Often she’d catch the 32 bus at night. Before the route was truncated in 2014, that bus used to go all the way across the city.
“It was a bus line that stayed open almost 24 hours,” White said. “To stay safe I would just ride the bus line from Friendship Heights and then all the way to Southern Avenue, which is over there by the Anacostia area. Then I’d ride it back again. I would do that, say, three times or four times. That would pass the night till it got light outside. Then I’d start my journey walking around.”
It was on one of those journeys — on K Street NW, White recalled — that another person without a home told her about Miriam’s Kitchen. She paid it a visit.
“I thought, ‘I can’t keep staying on the street. It’s cold. I’m tired. I’m hungry all the time,’ ” White said.
Miriam’s Kitchen was founded in 1983. It operates out of Western Presbyterian Church at 24th and Virginia NW. Breakfast and dinner are served there every weekday. Case workers help clients navigate the paperwork to receive housing benefits and other support. The pandemic has affected some of the charity’s offerings, but when White first started coming, art and beading classes were held. Poetry workshops, too.
“I just started hanging around Miriam’s Kitchen all day, five days a week,” said White, 61. “What Miriam’s Kitchen did for me is kept me from being depressed, because I always had something to do.”
At Miriam’s, White found something that had been in short supply in her life: smiles. They were on the faces of the staff and volunteers who worked there and the guests who went there.
“It got to the point where I was looking forward to seeing that smile, because it reminded me that I am human and that I do matter,” she said. “That right there is a powerful statement for me.”
White became an advocacy fellow at Miriam’s Kitchen, allowing her to work with the staff to dive into the District’s budget and testify before the D.C. Council. She received help from other organizations, too, including the People for Fairness Coalition and Street Sense. (White’s work with the Street Sense newspaper and website is chronicled in a new documentary, “Street Reporter,” by Laura Waters Hinson.)
For four years, White lived in a women’s shelter in Chinatown. In May 2020 she found permanent supportive housing in Northwest Washington. She is working on a degree in political science at the University of the District of Columbia.
“I can sit in front of my computer and do my homework at my own leisure time,” she said. “For my life, I just want the simple things: a home where I can cook, sleep and work, play and enjoy life, just live out my old age.”
I asked White if she still rode the bus, not for survival, but for transportation.
“I was on the 32 today,” she said. “It did bring back memories.
“I can get anywhere in Maryland, D.C., Virginia. One thing about a homeless person: Ask them for directions. They won’t get lost. We know how to survive out there, as much as we can.”
Miriam’s Kitchen is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, our annual fundraising drive. Your gift will help support people like Sheila White.
To give online, visit posthelpinghand.com. To give by check, write Miriam’s Kitchen, Attn: Development, 2401 Virginia Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20037.