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A special gift for her birthday: A new apartment for someone else

Esther Ford of Miriam’s Kitchen with Eric Blake in the Dupont Circle apartment she helped find for him. In December alone, Ford helped eight formerly homeless people move into their own apartments. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

I guarantee that whatever present you got on your last birthday isn’t as special as what Esther Ford received on hers: a one-bedroom apartment in the District’s NoMa neighborhood. And it wasn’t even for her.

Ford is a senior housing case manager at Miriam’s Kitchen, a nonprofit organization working to alleviate homelessness in Washington. I introduced her to readers in a column on Dec. 6. In it, I recounted a single busy morning at Ford’s weekly housing clinic, as she met with person after person seeking help.

I called Ford this week to see what had happened since then.

“I housed eight people in December,” she said with pride. “I got somebody leased up today. I think I may have two people already for this year.”

That includes Juan, the artist from Puerto Rico I mentioned who was shattered by his mother’s death of covid-19. He now lives in an apartment Ford found for him in Van Ness. There’s Eric, whom I accompanied to check out a studio apartment near Dupont Circle.

And there’s John, who had been experiencing homelessness for five years. Ford had taken John all over Maryland to track down documents he needed to reconstruct his stolen identity and iron out the benefits to which he is entitled. He moved into that NoMa apartment on Ford’s birthday, Dec. 23.

“That’s the best birthday present,” Ford said. “He told me a long time ago what kind of apartment he wanted. I got him exactly what he wanted. He was over the moon. I was crying.”

When a client has secured a housing voucher, enabling the person to rent an apartment with a third of their income (or none, if they have no income), Ford gets busy searching for what they want — a balcony, say, or a living room that receives natural sunlight — and in the neighborhood they desire.

This surprises some people, including, not long ago, one incredulous real estate agent.

Said Ford: “She said, ‘I don’t understand. These people have been homeless, they get a voucher, and then they tell you where they want to live?’”

That agent’s point: Shouldn’t they be grateful to live anywhere?

Ford’s point: Don’t people deserve to live where they want?

It doesn’t happen overnight. Another client I had met that morning — Bobby — has been approved for a housing voucher but must be officially assigned to one of the organizations that can shepherd him through the apartment-finding process. (That may well be Miriam’s Kitchen, Ford said.)

Ford continues to touch base with another man who has been blind since birth and lives in a shelter in Southeast Washington. She hopes he will be in the next wave of people who receive vouchers.

Artistic mornings at Miriam’s Kitchen offer a way to make connections

Gerald, a returning citizen who was living with his girlfriend but wanted advice on finding his own place, hasn’t checked back with Ford.

And Ford has told the Miriam’s Kitchen dining room staff — the charity serves breakfast and dinner every weekday — to be on the lookout for a 35-year-old Navy veteran suffering from PTSD. She hadn’t seen him since the morning we spent together.

Ford thinks the Department of Veterans Affairs should send the man to a residential treatment program in Florida. She vowed to accompany him to his VA assessment to increase the odds of that happening.

Another person I met that morning was Margaret, who had moved into an apartment but hadn’t unpacked. The money to pay her security deposit hadn’t come through, and she was worried about being evicted.

Ford looked into it and saw that work had started on getting the money through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program run by the District’s Department of Human Services.

“They just needed the confirmation to go into the system,” Ford said. A Miriam’s Kitchen colleague, Jennifer Hightower, was on it, and the payment has been made.

“[Hightower] is constantly involved with DHS,” Ford said. “I don’t even know how she finds time to sleep. She is on it. No task is too small. No task is too big. This chick, she is everything.”

Everyone at Miriam’s Kitchen is, Ford said.

“Every team, every single solitary person who works at Miriam’s Kitchen, is dedicated to ending chronic homelessness,” she said.

Having spent much of the past two months watching them in action, I don’t doubt it.

Helping Hand

This is the last column about Miriam’s Kitchen I’ll write during this year’s Washington Post Helping Hand campaign. I hope you’ve learned a few things about how the organization works — and I hope you’ll be inspired to donate.

To give online to Miriam’s Kitchen, visit posthelpinghand.com and click where it says “Donate Online Now.” To give by check, write Miriam’s Kitchen, Attn: Development, 2401 Virginia Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20037.

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