“There is no place to go for so many of us,” said Campbell, who had once been homeless herself. “There is so much construction going on in my city, yet there is no place for me and others like me. . . . Help us help ourselves.”
Campbell told me later: “I was super nervous.”
Maybe, but Betty Gentle couldn’t have been happier.
Gentle is the senior advocacy and community engagement specialist at So Others Might Eat, a nonprofit organization that provides services for impoverished people in the District. Gentle is good at her job, but she accepts that others have much more experience when it comes to what being homeless entails. Those are people like Campbell.
“Often,” said Gentle, “the people who do policy work sit around and identify a problem — for instance, homelessness — and we do our research, collect our data and come up with solutions without ever thinking to go and talk to people who have been homeless. In actuality, the people who come up with the best solutions are the people who experienced the problems.”
That’s why SOME has what it calls resident advocates. These are clients such as Campbell who live in SOME housing and serve as liaisons between their fellow residents and the city’s political machinery.
Campbell, 54, traveled a rough road to SOME. She was an alcoholic — crashing on the couches of friends and relatives — before a bender put her in the hospital in the spring of 2015. A doctor there recommended she seek help at So Others Might Eat. Campbell entered the organization’s substance abuse program in West Virginia.
“My time up there taught me how to set boundaries,” Campbell said. “It taught me to stand up for myself and that I was worthy of love, I was worthy of being respected. It taught me how to forgive myself.”
After successfully completing the program, Campbell moved into a building that SOME owns just north of Logan Circle. She immersed herself in the life of the building, helping older residents fix computer problems and sign up for ride-booking apps on their phones. She knew which area farmers markets had the best sweet potatoes and collard greens.
She was a natural to become a resident advocate.
“Basically, I would go to the [Advisory Neighborhood Commission] meetings and find out what was going on in the neighborhood,” Campbell said. “I would bring information back to the residents and let them know what was going on.”
She’d also share residents’ concerns with the ANC commissioner.
She told her fellow residents: “My platform is we can’t just sit here and complain about it.”
The issues at the monthly ANC meetings — in Northwest Washington and, later, in Northeast, after Campbell moved to SOME’s Conway Center on Benning Road NE — were of a familiar sort: crime, traffic, streetlights, along with discussions of businesses hoping to open.
Campbell realized that politics was a conversation: the back and forth of shared interests and competing ones. For too long, she and her formerly homeless peers had been left out of that conversation.
Said Gentle, 30: “The goal isn’t just to sit in their buildings and talk about improving their neighborhoods, but for them to feel comfortable and empowered to go out in the community and become community leaders.”
That’s what Campbell is doing. She stepped down from her resident advocate role and is in a leadership program with the Fair Budget Coalition, a public policy group that works to make the District a more equitable place. She worked with the Consumer Health Foundation, too, and was among a group there that considered grant proposals before deciding who would get funding.
“This is a way of me giving back to my community,” Campbell said. “And I like the challenge. I like being busy. I enjoy helping people. And I like to run my mouth.”
Campbell laughed. Those sounded like the qualities a politician needs. Perhaps one day someone will be testifying at a meeting in front of her.
You can help
So Others Might Eat is a partner in The Washington Post’s annual Helping Hand fundraising campaign. Your gift will help fund the work it does to lift people out of poverty. To make an online contribution, visit posthelpinghand.com and click Donate.
To give to SOME the old-fashioned way, make a check payable to So Others Might Eat and send it to SOME, Attn: Helping Hand, 71 O St. NW, Washington DC 20001.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.