I was astounded when Patrick Walsh told me how many people called in the four hours that So Others Might Eat opened its housing intake line in September.
Four hundred. Four hundred families in desperate need of somewhere to live in Washington, unable to afford a place on their own.
But 400 wasn't how many people called.
"We answered 400," said Walsh, program manager in SOME's Family Services department. "A lot of people didn't get through."
That illustrates the demand for affordable housing in the District and the important role that SOME plays in providing it. The charity was founded in 1970 as a soup kitchen. Over time, its leaders realized that it was better for a poor person to prepare a meal in his or her own kitchen.
In 2016, SOME provided housing for 146 families with 336 children, as well as for 543 single adults.
Walsh explained the process for those who were able to get through on the phone in September. After a first cut to determine eligibility, the number was whittled to about 60. Then a more detailed application was prepared.
"We look at different things," he said. "Are they living in a car? Are they living on the street? Are they bouncing from friend to friend? Are they in a stable housing environment now? Is it just overpriced, or are they in an apartment that is leaking and has roaches?"
Those with the greatest need were put on a waiting list. It sometimes takes a year for a spot to open up.
SOME's many housing programs fall into various categories. Shalom House in the Eckington neighborhood is an SRO — single-room occupancy — building for 92 low-income men and women. Fendall Heights House in Anacostia is for 29 families headed by homeless veterans. Joseph Smith House in Southeast Washington is for 10 men in recovery.
Zagami House — a three-story, red-brick building a block off Minnesota Avenue SE — is home to a dozen families that live in two- and three-bedroom apartments. (It's named in honor of the late Joseph Zagami, who ran a District realty company for many years and whose son was the building's previous owner.)
Zagami residents receive more than a place to live. They also experience a way of living.
"We offer case management," Walsh said. "We offer mental health counseling and therapy. We do referrals to our own Center for Employment Training. We have an education coordinator who works with families on such things as individualized education programs for their children."
Said Jami Murray, a licensed therapist and SOME's Family Services clinical director: "We have four core areas: education, health and wellness, finance and employment."
Parents at Zagami House — currently all single mothers — meet every month with their case managers.
"The case manager will ask the resident what they want to work on," Walsh said. "Do you want to find a better job? Do you want to go back to school? What are the things we need to do to get you to that point?"
For Tiffany Blake, 31, a mother of four, those goals included finishing high school. She had dropped out in the 12th grade. At Zagami House, she was often in the basement computer lab.
"All my courses I did literally here at Zagami House on the computer," she said. "I completed it this year."
The rent that Zagami House residents pay is 30 percent of whatever their income is, whether their wages or their government benefits. They are encouraged to save, and they receive help with things such as budgeting and improving their credit score.
Walsh said the program's success is based on whether clients are able to increase their education, learn to budget and save, and get a job.
"Right now, we have a 75 percent employment rate," he said.
That includes Blake, who works full-time at a day-care center in Foggy Bottom.
Blake moved to Zagami House on Dec. 24, 2012. Her goals? Opening her own day-care center someday. And having her own home. She thinks in just a few more years — with a little more help from SOME — she will be ready.
"I want to get everything in order, go step by step," she said. "I want to take my time and get there."
Well, this is it: My final column in the past year's Washington Post Helping Hand fundraising drive. So far, readers have donated $139,064. Can we reach our goal of $200,000 by Friday?
With your help, we can. To make a donation to So Others Might Eat, visit posthelpinghand.com and click on "Donate." To give by mail, make a check payable to "So Others Might Eat" and send it to SOME, Attn: Helping Hand, 71 O St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.