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Nonprofit project offers cash lifeline to District’s poorest

Latasha Carrington and her husband and children have been selected for a cash- and food-assistance program targeting D.C. families living in Ward 8.
Latasha Carrington and her husband and children have been selected for a cash- and food-assistance program targeting D.C. families living in Ward 8. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Life was never going to be easy for Latasha Carrington. She has known that since she was a child. In her teens she spent five years in foster care, with 15 families. She had her first child at 19. Now, at 31, Carrington is the mother of seven, sharing a cramped apartment with her husband and children in the District’s Ward 8, where 31 percent of families live in poverty in one of the wealthiest cities in the country.

Carrington has always worked when she could, and she has always had to worry — about having a place to live, having enough food to eat, providing for her children. She has heard the people who criticize her for having too many babies. “No point going back and forth. I can’t say anything to them that will change their minds, so I don’t say anything,” she said. “I just smile.”

Before the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, everything was a struggle. After it hit, the struggle felt meaner, harder, unforgiving. Her husband lost his job as a street cleaner. She was studying to be a medical technician, but school shut down. Reasons for hope were yanked away.

Last week, Carrington received the first bit of good news she has had in a long time. Her family was selected for a new emergency cash- and food-assistance program created by four of the District’s most established nonprofit organizations. Five hundred families in Ward 8, including hers, will receive $1,100 a month for five months, plus groceries and dry goods.

“I started crying ’cause nothing ever happens good for us,” she said. “We’ve hit rock bottom, and this is a breath of fresh air.”

The “THRIVE East of the River” program is a partnership of organizations that have long addressed the needs of the District’s poorest residents: Martha’s Table, Bread for the City, the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative, and 11th Street Bridge Park (a project of Building Bridges Across the River). So far, the partnership has raised half of its $4 million budget from foundations, individuals and corporations to pay for the program which, in addition to providing cash and groceries, works with recipients to help them access benefits such as financial counseling, tax credit applications and health care, including mental health resources.

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Providing a gift of cash and food to the recipients will have a multiplier effect, said Dionne Bussey-Reeder, executive director of the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative.

“When you get access to opportunity and a gift like this, it changes outcomes for not just the individual but families,” Bussey-Reeder said. “This is the worst of times for them, and now is the time to do this. Give these families a chance to stay in this community. This bit of money is going to sustain them.”

For Bussey-Reeder, whose clients include a mother who has never been able to buy her daughter a pair of new shoes, a grandmother who doesn’t know how she’ll be able to pay next month’s rent, and a new mother who carries her baby on her hip because she can’t afford a stroller, the big and small examples of how an unexpected source of funds can immediately improve lives are all around.

Carrington says she is proof of that. “I just don’t want anyone to count us out,” she said. “We’re trying to get a better life for our family just like the next person. A little bit of help goes a long way. I know how to stretch things.”

Even before the public health crisis gripped Washington, the organizations that formed THRIVE were working together to come up with equitable and inclusive ways to ensure that residents of Ward 8 would benefit from the expansion of wealth in the rest of the city, said Scott Kratz, director of 11th Street Bridge Park. The pandemic forced an escalation of those plans and immediate action.

“The short-term goal is to stabilize Ward 8 families to weather this economic and health calamity,” Kratz said. “We needed to make sure that residents wouldn’t suffer irreversible damage.”

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A key aspect of the program is that the cash disbursements are considered gifts that will not be taxable or make recipients ineligible for other sources of funding such as Social Security, unemployment benefits or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Giving cash directly to families appealed to the agencies, Kratz said, because it was fast and effective and put decision-making in the hands of those who would best know what their needs are. For the new project, all of the agencies identified families with whom they were already working. That also made it easier to help direct them to other sources of support, including financial counseling.

“We trust our residents to make those decisions,” Kratz said. “There’s evidence that this works.”

The cash program is similar in some respects to universal basic income pilot programs being tried in other cities, but there are differences, says Mary Bogle, principal research associate at the Urban Institute, which is working with THRIVE to assess the project’s reach and effectiveness and provide real-time guidance for the nonprofit agencies to tailor their approach in response to data.

For now, the program is short term, at five months, and is intended to get people out of a crisis, Bogle said. But it shares the goals of universal basic income projects that aim to provide cash without strings attached that let recipients address their needs as they determine them.

“The stereotype is that someone who receives this money will just stay home and sit on the couch watching TV all day,” Bogle said. “In fact, the data show if you give people cash they actually mobilize into a better future. They get a better job, they spend more time attending to their children’s needs so they’ll do better academically, they don’t need a second job. If you alleviate the financial pressures, what are the outcomes that radiate out from that? That’s what we’ll be assessing.”

For Zabria Proctor, 29, the past few months have felt cruel.

“It’s been stressful. Mentally, very stressful. That pretty much sums it up,” she said.

Until mid-March, Proctor worked part time earning $11.70 an hour as a bus assistant for special-needs children in Prince George’s County. When schools shut down, so did the job. Her husband’s work detailing cars dried up about the same time. The parents of a 9-year-old and a 1-year-old found themselves without income and struggling to cover the basics.

She filed for unemployment, but that has yet to be approved, Proctor said. There was no stimulus check, and she isn’t sure why. When the money ran out, the family had to stop paying the $1,070 monthly rent for their one-bedroom apartment. Proctor’s son had been eating breakfast and lunch at school, but when schools closed that option became harder to access.

“My son likes to eat, but now he’ll eat breakfast and just stretch it out until dinner. Mainly he eats twice a day,” Proctor said. “There’s days when I’ve gone without so he can have a meal.”

Proctor was “beyond ecstatic” when she learned last week that her family would be receiving money and food through the THRIVE program.

“Just to know I will have this is such a blessing,” she said. “Not really having to worry about food and a place to live, the ability to have basic needs just to provide for my family. Financially stable — that’s where I want to be. That’s what I’m shooting for.”