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For unhoused people, Esther Ford provides a new lease on life

Esther Ford with Eric Blake in the Dupont Circle apartment she helped find for Blake. As the senior housing case manager at Miriam's Kitchen, Ford helps people experiencing homelessness navigate the voucher system and find a place to live. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

Juan, the very first person in line to see Esther Ford on a recent Thursday morning, is consumed with guilt. He’s weighed down with the belief that he gave his mother covid after becoming infected himself while living in a shelter for men experiencing homelessness.

“You didn’t kill her,” says Ford reassuringly. She’s the senior housing case manager at the nonprofit Miriam’s Kitchen and this is her weekly housing clinic. She never knows who’s going to come or what their specific issues will be. She just knows people will need her help.

“I can’t stay in the cold,” Juan says. He prefers the streets to the shelters now. He has a housing voucher, but doesn’t know his next step. He’s come to Miriam’s Kitchen in Foggy Bottom.

Free, tasty meals provide a reason to visit Miriam’s Kitchen

Ford is wired into the District’s rental market and how to smooth things for voucher holders. She asks Juan to wait for her to finish with the other visitors. Then she’ll take him to look at apartments. (“A long time ago, I learned D.C. isn’t a what-you-know town. It’s a who-you-know town,” Ford tells me. “It helps if you can do a warm handoff, not just give someone a phone number or email address.”)

Next up is Eric. He has a voucher, too. The mayor and the D.C. Council have worked to create 2,400 vouchers, which allow people to rent an apartment with a third of their income — or none, if they have no income. The remainder is subsidized.

Ford says there’s an apartment in Columbia Heights that might be a good fit for Eric. There’s another near Dupont Circle.

“Is it nice?” Eric asks.

“All the apartments I find are nice,” Ford says. She wouldn’t place a client in any apartment she wouldn’t want to live in herself.

Ford tells Eric to meet her at noon outside an apartment building on Massachusetts Avenue NW.

At Miriam’s Kitchen, people without homes can find more than a meal

Gerald is next. He’s a returning citizen, the term for someone who has spent time in prison. Gerald’s been living with his girlfriend but wants his own place. He doesn’t have a voucher, but he works construction and has a steady income: $18 an hour.

Ford knows a building on 16th Street SE with an apartment for $1,100 a month, though she may be able to get it for less.

“You don’t make enough for anywhere else,” she says. Sometimes Ford will put roommates together, but that’s not something Gerald is interested in.

Ford’s son lives in this complex, so she knows it’s safe.

“My son can get Amazon packages and they’re still there at the end of the day,” she says. “At night, there’s nobody hanging around. It’s working people who live there.”

That’s what Gerald is: a working person, trying to get by.

When he leaves, Ford turns to me and says, “Eighteen dollars an hour. That's what I deal with all the time. These were the people holding us together during covid.”

And now many of them can’t afford to live in the city they grew up in.

Next is a 35-year-old homeless U.S. Navy veteran who self-medicates with marijuana to dull the pain of something that happened during his time in the military. He’s lived on the streets for nine years and is hoping to get into a residential treatment program to help with his PTSD.

Ford calls a contact at Veterans Affairs, and puts the vet on the phone. It’s decided that the vet doesn’t seem in immediate danger. Ford promises him she’ll keep working on his behalf.

“A lot of time people get frustrated and leave before the miracle,” she tells me. “They expect to be let down.”

Next is a visually impaired immigrant who has somehow learned to navigate the city without sight. He’s been staying at a men’s shelter in Anacostia. He’s in line for a voucher.

“I'm not interested in assisted living,” he says.

Number Six is John. He spent time in foster care, then was adopted, then had his identity stolen. Ford has driven with John all over Maryland, visiting various government archives to get the documents he needs to find housing. During the saga, he discovered he had a brother. Today, he has stopped by to give Ford an update: He’s been accepted for an apartment in NoMa.

“She’s been my angel and my blessing,” John says of Ford.

Bobby is next, another veteran. He’s received a voucher but needs to fill out his Request for Tenancy Approval. The RFTA is a long, complex document, confusing to many. Ford understands it.

“Sign right here for me,” she tells Bobby, going through it page by page.

The last visitor is a woman named Margaret. She has a voucher. In fact, she moved into her apartment two weeks ago. But she hasn’t unpacked yet because she doesn’t have the $2,300 security deposit and is afraid she’ll just be evicted.

Ford explains that by the end of the year, Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds have often dried up. Ford assures Margaret that she’ll check with other charities that may be able to find the money.

Ford’s three-hour clinic is over at 11:30 a.m. She puts Juan in an Uber and sends him to a prospective apartment building where she’ll meet him later. Then I drive her to a building near Dupont Circle where Eric Blake, 62, awaits.

The landlord takes us to a newly painted efficiency. Ford has other units to show Eric, but he’s already made up his mind.

“I'll take it,” says Eric, who has been homeless for 20 years, most recently living in his car.

“I just want to live safe,” he says.

It’s all any of us want. It’s what Esther Ford makes possible.

You can help

Miriam’s Kitchen is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand. I’m appealing to readers to make a donation in support of its work. To give online to Miriam’s Kitchen, visit posthelpinghand.com and click where it says “Donate.” To give by check, write Miriam’s Kitchen, Attn: Development, 2401 Virginia Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20037.

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