Legal Director Vytas Vergeer Elected to DC Bar Board of Governors

On Tuesday, June 19, 2012, Bread for the City Legal Director Vytas V. Vergeer was elected to the DC Bar’s 20 member Board of Governors to serve for a three year term. The Board of Governors serves the DC Bar to ensure that the ethical standards and rules of professional conduct are upheld in the legal community.

Vytas and Jeannine at Holday Party

Fueled by a superhuman dedication to social justice, as well as lots of Mountain Dew, Vergeer is eager to serve on the DC Bar Board of Governors.

Vergeer has held several positions with the DC Bar, first serving on their steering committee, and most recently, as chair of the Real Estate Housing and Land Use committee. He was endorsed to serve on the Board of Governors by the DC Consortium of Legal Services Providers, the Washington Council of Lawyers, and GAYLAW.

“I hope to be able to help the bar become the most effective agency for its attorneys,” shared Vytas after winning the election.

Vergeer joined Bread for the City as a staff attorney in 1994 and became legal director in 1999. Under his tenure, the legal clinic has grown to 14 full-time staff attorneys who opened 720 cases for full representation in matters of housing, family, and disability law last fiscal year. Most notably in recent years, Vergeer and his staff worked collaboratively with the Legal Aid Society of DC to launch two new projects with the DC Superior Court (paid for by public funds awarded by the DC Bar Foundation): the Court-Based Legal Services Project and the  Child Support Court-Based Legal Services Project, which provide same-day representation in matters of housing and family law, respectively.

Vytas Vergeer and His Team

Vytas with his staff attorneys

Vytas Vergeer was awarded the Jerrold Scoutt Prize in 2010 by the DC Bar Foundation for his efforts to reform pro bono tenant representation in the Superior Court Landlord and Tenant Branch. The Jerrold Scoutt Prize is awarded annually to an attorney who has worked for a significant portion of his or her career at a non-profit organization providing direct hands-on legal services to the needy in the District of Columbia; has demonstrated compassionate concern for his or her clients; and has exhibited a high degree of skill on their behalf. You can read Vergeer’s acceptance speech here (it’s quite funny!).

Susan Jackson: Homelessness Advocate

This post is by Nathan Karrel, an intern with the Advocacy Department. He sat down recently with Susan Jackson, a former Bread for the City client and homeless advocate, who offered to share her story with us.

Washington DC has 5,518 individuals living in homelessness. Susan Jackson, born and raised in DC, is one of those adults. Recently, I sat down with Susan to speak with her about her activism and her struggle with homelessness. Susan shared that as a homeless resident, she’s had a difficult time getting access to nutritious food, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. This challenge is what Susan links to her early onset of diabetes. Nearly 9% of DC adults have diabetes, ranking it 4th highest in the nation for the percentage of people with diabetes in the general population. Susan noted that her homelessness was also exacerbated by the lack of shelters and transitional housing afforded to women. As she said to me, “Many women are living on the streets because of the lack of adequate space…Women are not at the forefront of anyone’s mind; it’s only when an advocate, like myself, stands up and asks pointed questions about shelter space for women is it even discussed.” Through a District social worker, Susan became aware of N Street Village in Northwest DC. N Street Village provides housing for low-income and moderate-income individuals and families. As a member of the N Street Village community, Susan found the stability that allowed her transform the difficulties of her homeless situation to advocate on behalf of the homeless women in the District. “My experience of being homeless has afforded me opportunities or lessons of how to advocate for myself and my needs and in doing so caused me to advocate for others,” she said. “It’s not something that I set out to do, but I believe that it is necessary and I can’t see myself doing anything else.”

If you want to learn to advocate like Susan, Bread for the City invites you to Winning a Better Budget: Dinner and Action Session, 5:30 to 8:00 pm Tuesday, April 12th at our Northwest Center. (If evening doesn’t work for you, you can join our weekly luncheons from 12:00 to 1:00 pm each Wednesday at our Southeast location and Friday at our Northwest location.) Susan is a face behind the statistics of homelessness and poverty. She has struggled with adversity to become a powerful advocate on behalf of women in situations of homelessness and poverty in the District. She is pursuing a Human Services Administration Certificate at Catholic University, is a well-respected presence in the Logan Circle neighborhood, and active in food policy council organizing and the Fair Budget Coalition. Follow her inspiring example at Winning a Better Budget next Tuesday.

My Journey Through Time: A Brief History of Shaw

My name is Makia Smith and I am a California native who spent this past semester interning at Bread for the City. While attending American University this fall through a student-exchange program, I was encouraged to learn and write about a community in DC. Given the location of Bread for the City’s Northwest Center (where I worked), I decided to delve into the history of the Shaw neighborhood.

The real story of Shaw begins just after the Civil War, when the neighborhood became a magnet for a wide range of new residents: whites, blacks, professionals, skilled and unskilled laborers. It was a destination, a place to establish roots. Many are familiar with Shaw’s most famous resident during its heyday: Duke Ellington.

In the 1960’s, the neighborhood began to change with crime on the rise in its formerly safe streets. Suddenly, Shaw was deemed a place to leave, and most of those who could, did. This downturn culminated in the riots of 1968, which completely devastated the social and economic well-being of the community for decades to come. By the end of the 60’s, it was obvious that what had once exemplified the dignity and pride of the African American community was in heavy decline.

Throughout the 1970’s, Shaw had transformed into a poor community with high poverty and unemployment. In the 1980’s, new residents moved in on the hopes that the new Metrorail system would be followed shortly thereafter by a revitalization of the neighborhood. That didn’t happen. Instead, the neighborhood was forced to endure a new wave of crime that followed the explosion of the crack cocaine epidemic on the streets of DC. By the end of the 80’s, things were looking pretty bleak.

In 1991, Bread for the City and the Zacchaeus Free Medical Clinic moved into the neighborhood at the organization’s current home of 1525 Seventh Street. By 1995, the two entities merged under the single heading of Bread for the City. Willette Branch, a three-year veteran of BFC’s staff and long-time Shaw resident, believes that Bread for the City is a major boon to the community. She notes that, while pride often serves as a barrier to those who need help, Bread for the City is exceptional at helping individuals maintain their dignity while receiving the safety net services that they are desperately in need of.

Sekou “Koe” Murphy, Chief Financial Officer at Bread for the City, lived in Shaw while attending Howard University. He liked the neighborhood so much he eventually bought a home here. In short, he saw potential in the community. But at the same time, he also acknowledged the necessity of affordable housing in the community. Without it, many current residents would not be able to afford to live in Shaw, let alone anywhere else in DC—which is one of the costliest places to live in the United States.

Now that my time here at Bread for the City has come to an end, it has proved a fascinating experience to explore the history of this neighborhood where I’ve spent my last three months—its highs, its lows, and where it stands now. Given the encroachment of development (including the planned razing of the Kelsey Gardens apartments across the street from my office to make way for a condo complex), one wonders what changes lie in store for Shaw in the coming years. Likewise, one wonders if it will succeed in retaining its cultural ties as one of the nation’s most vibrant African American communities in the post-Civil War era. Only time will tell.

For more information about the history of the Shaw neighborhood, please check out our friends at Shaw Main Streets.

Photo of Broadway Theater (1949)—current home of Bread for the City’s expanded new facility—courtesy of the Wymer Photograph Collection, The Historical Society of Washington, DC/City Museum

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Introducing the BRIDGE guidebook

>This is a guest post submitted by Natalie Kaplan and Lee Goldstein of George Washington University. Contact the BRIDGE project at hmsr152project@gmail.com.

After 9/11 we were told that if we had only connected the dots, we might have stopped the attacks. If we had assembled the fragments of information we had, we would have put together a picture. The same is true in understanding poverty. We have to connect the dots among disparate problems faced by struggling families, problems that may not seem related, yet interact and reinforce and magnify one another.

So the concept of BRIDGE, to map the social services available in the Washington area, may give both providers and individuals a way of connecting the dots, of navigating among the varied agencies to address disparate problems. It can provide a gateway into the multiple forms of assistance that many families need.

-David Shipler
Pulitzer Prize Winning Author of The Working Poor

From food pantries and meal programs, to shelters, job training, health services, arts and recreation programs, community gardens, and overall case management, a wealth of non-profit organizations and service providers exist to serve DC citizens in need. But a disconnect often exists between knowledge and access to many of these invaluable services. The BRIDGE (Bridging Resources in D.C. to Guide and Educate) guidebook, a pocket-sized publication created by students in The George Washington University’s Human Services program, seeks to “bridge” these gaps between availability and access to the valuable social services throughout the District.

The BRIDGE guidebook, featuring 64 pages of information about over 550 social service sites throughout the District, is now available for service providers and individuals throughout the District of Columbia.

The BRIDGE Project started a little over a year ago as a serendipitous turn of events. Every year, the students from the George Washington University’s Human Services program help to run the University’s version of Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. The weeklong slew of events includes a food drive, poetry slam, Hunger banquet, and culminates in students’ participation in Fannie Mae’s Help the Homeless Walkathon. During the Walkathon in November of 2008, Director and Professor of the Human Services Program, Honey Nashman, approached us with an idea to map the social services available throughout the city. We were given the unique opportunity to serve as teaching assistants and lead this newly formed class project aimed at mapping the social services available in the District of Columbia. We gladly accepted with little idea of how things would turn out, or how big the project would become.

Having worked with multiple organizations throughout our three plus years as Human Services majors at GW, we were able to quickly make contacts at Bread for the City, DC Central Kitchen, and their supporting network of social service providers: HAFA (Healthy and Affordable Food for All). With their guidance, and the foundation provided by the DC Food Finder, we worked with 13 students to collect information, update, and map over 550 service providing organizations throughout the D.C. area.

For more information, or to find out how you or your organization can request copies of the BRIDGE guidebook, please contact Natalie Kaplan and Lee Goldstein at hmsr152project@gmail.com. Please visit our website to follow our BRIDGE BLOG and learn more about the current class’s work. From the website, you can view an electronic version of the BRIDGE guidebook and help us track our progress through the Distribution Feedback Form. Additionally, if you find listings that are no longer accurate, information that needs updating, or another site you think should be included, you can fill out the Site Update Form listed on the website as well.

Thank you for all you do to make Washington, D.C. a better community for its residents, and with your help we look forward to making the BRIDGE publication as useful a resource as possible!

Natalie Kaplan and Lee Goldstein of George Washington University
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Helping the Hungry in the Snowpocalypse

>[Cross-posted from DC Food For All]

Last week, Bread for the City‘s two centers were slammed with people coming to beat the snowstorm and pick up supplies of food. (We provide our clients with one package of three days worth of food per month.) As a result, this week is very quiet in our offices.

So we checked in with our fellow organizations to see what is happening. First and foremost, we are concerned about elderly and home-bound people – for whom this isn’t just an inconvenience, but a real crisis!

Some good news from Food & Friends — which delivers meals to people living withHIV/AIDS and other challenging illnessess. They have not missed delivering a single meal to our clients facing life-challenging illnesses such as HIV/AIDS and cancer, so far.

However, with more snow predicted, they need more help!

We seek delivery volunteers, especially those with 4-wheel-drive vehicles. Food & Friends needs 11 volunteers at 10 a.m. and 33 volunteers at 12 noon to deliver meals to our clients. Each route should take less than 3 hours, and we will provide detailed delivery directions to allow you to help us ensure that those in need are served in this challenging weather emergency. Sign-Up Via Email here.

Other good news from Miriam’s Kitchen, which is not only open but also just recently started serving dinner. (More on that development here on the DC Food For All soon….):

We are lucky to have a tremendous core of volunteers that allow us to open no matter the situation. In fact, in our 27 years of service, we have NEVER had to close. Today at breakfast we served 106 homeless men and women, and we expect about the same for dinner tonight.

And the DC Central Kitchen has been working overdrive to make the food that way-over-capacity shelters are serving.

During this week’s record snowstorm, the Kitchen not only produced its scheduled 4,000 meals per day, its dedicated staff, volunteers and trainees were able to produce an additional 2,500 meals per day, over the last five days, assuring that men and women who were trapped in local shelters were provided with healthy and hearty breakfast, lunch and dinners.

Jerald Thomas, the Kitchen’s Executive Chef: “Volunteers and local chefs have been walking in to help. Just today, chefs from Café Atlántico walked over to lend a hand. We also got a $2,000 cake donated when a wedding was canceled. The outpouring of time and talent is amazing.”

Of course, this was a difficult situation before the second wave of snow that is scheduled to arrive in just a few hours. We’re going to be on the look out for important stories and opportunities for people to help out – please share what you know in the comments.

In the meantime, for anyone who is searching for hot meals or other supplies in your area, check out the DC Food Finder to get a comprehensive list of places to start calling. Good luck and stay safe out there!

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>Food Stamp Expansion: What is the Holdup?

>[Cross-posted at the DC Food For All.]

Last week, a woman came to Bread’s Southeast Legal Clinic for help getting food stamps. She had multiple sclerosis, which made cooking a difficult task. On top of that, she was also living on a fixed income of Social Security Disability Insurance — and after paying for rent, utilities, and other costs, food of any kind was tough to fit into the budget. She attempted to apply for food stamps, but she was denied.

That same week, I saw another woman in a strikingly similar situation: in clear need, but denied food stamps. When I calculated the amount of benefits to which the two women were entitled, I came to the same unfortunate conclusion: under the District’s current policies, both clients were “over income;” their incomes were each slightly more than 130% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines (FPG), which is a threshold in qualifying for food stamps.

However, I was able to provide some signs of good news to these clients. Last year, DC passed legislation that expands the qualifications for food stamps. (We blogged extensively about this new change, back when Councilmember Michael Brown pushed the bill through to a unanimous vote in City Council.) This rule change means that households like those of the two women I met with – with incomes under 200% of FPG – will be eligible for assistance. They will no longer face hurdles like caps on assets, gross income, and net income.

200% of FPG doesn’t go far, especially in places like DC, where housing costs are high. For reference, it’s $21,600 a year for a one-person household, and $44,100 for four people. The change will be especially important for households with incomes close to 200% of FPG who have high housing costs, or who pay a significant amount for utilities, child care, child support, or medical expenses. These households may have extremely low—or no—income left after those bill are paid, yet they haven’t been able to access a program described in a recent New York Times article as “a vital safety net.”

Increasing the availability of food stamps keeps families from making difficult choices: leaving utility bills unpaid in what’s known as the “heat or eat” dilemma, or foregoing important medication or housing payments. In turn, helping people get food stamps may reduce the strain that Bread for the City and other food pantries are facing in these difficult times.

But here’s the thing: in order for the changes to go into effect, the Department of Human Service’s computer system needs to be changed. These changes were first supposed to be completed on October 1. Then that was delayed until January — and now we seem to be looking at further delays. In the meantime, many of our neighbors are in great need of this additional assistance. Even though we have attempted to learn more about what is causing these delays for months, no satisfactory answers are forthcoming.

The Income Maintenance Administration (the agency in the Department of Human Services that administers food stamps) needs to implement this change as soon as possible, or at the very least let the public know what, exactly, is causing the delays and when we can realistically see our clients’ suffering alleviated. The vagaries of “our computers need changing” and “in a few months” are not acceptable when people need food. Bread for the City will continue to work to make this change come to pass, and assure that our clients know about it and receive the benefits they are entitled to. And that will include the two clients I spoke with last week.

>DC farmers markets to double the value of food stamps

>[Thanks to BFC intern Nora Lewis for reporting this story.]

Here’s a local reason to celebrate on this vacation weekend: starting July 4th, select FreshFarms Markets will be doubling the value of food stamps that are used to purchase fresh, nutritious foods.

This special opportunity is made possible in part by the Wholesome Wave Foundation’s Double Value Coupon Initiative. It’s the latest in a string of local efforts to increase the flow of healthy food to low-income DC residents.

The Washington Post recently looked at the Wholesome Wave initiative and discovered early signs of success – profiling one market in Holyoke, Massachusetts (“one of the poorest [cities] in the country”) at which “sales using food stamps … jumped 290 percent.”

With levels of food stamp assistance currently increasing on both the federal and local level, this program could bring a similarly large influx of participation into DC’s local produce markets.

FreshFarms Co-Director Bernie Prince tells us that the matching program will only currently operate at two of the markets – H St. and Silver Spring – but that with additional funding they could to expand to additional locations.

FreshFarms first began accepting credits from SNAP (food stamps), WIC (Women Infants and Children) and SFMNP (Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program) at two of its markets around this time last year. The program came off to a slow start, though – approval from the USDA took a long time, and the process of converting EBT credits into farmers market tokens posed a technical challenge. This time around, there’s been a more concerted push through the farmers market coalition and the public agencies that administer these assistance programs. (Councilmember Tommy Wells has also been actively encouraging the program.) The markets will have card machines, a dedicated staff person to administer the transactions, and cooking demonstrations.

It seems like the program is already popular with farmers. While FreshFarms can register entire markets to receive SNAP food stamps, individual vendors must register themselves to receive WIC and SFMNP. So far, all qualifying vendors (i.e. those who sell produce) have registered.

“If people are out there on the 4th ready to buy,” says Bernie, “we’ll be ready for them.”

>These are the People in the Neighborhood

>DC is fortunate to have a large blogging community. (Shaw, where Bread for the City NW is located, has even been named one of the top “bloggiest neighborhoods in the country.”) This blog scene is pretty neighborhood-centric, with an active interest in things like real estate, local commerce, crime, traffic lights, city history, and food. (Lots about food.) Unsurprisingly, given the main industry around here, DC’s blogosphere is often very sophisticated about the effects of policy and urban planning on everyday life.

Many of the neighborhood bloggers are young professionals who first moved to their area not too long before launching their blogs. Blogs like 14th & You, Renew Shaw, and And Now, Anacostia are monitoring the rapid change in their neighborhoods, cheerleading the good and watchdogging the bad. They are characteristically supportive of development, but they also hold a genuine appreciation for the historic character of a neighborhood.

In the past few weeks, we invited a bunch of these local bloggers to come take a tour of our facilities and discuss community issues. Their insight is of great value to us as we continue to deliberate upon the role that Beyond Bread can play within the emergent local blogosphere.

After all, Bread for the City helps and advocates for people who, by and large, don’t have regular access to the internet, let alone exposure to blogs. In many cases, our clients’ livelihoods are potentially threatened with further marginalization by the very forces of development that local boosters are inclined to support.

And yet, throughout the meetings, we found ample common ground. The bloggers all shared a deep and thoughtful support of diversity – not just as a platitude, but specifically in the form of mixed-income development that preserves affordable housing. Likewise in expanding local access to fresh and affordable food. In important ways, we are natural partners in the effort to improve the quality of life in the community as a whole.

One thing that came up repeatedly in discussion was the value of more eyes on the machinery of the city – at budget hearings, council meetings, public agencies, etc. Here at Bread for the City, we get a close inside look at changes that affect thousands of people in our community, but that might fall out of sight of even the most obsessive internet busybody. As we all spoke with these citizen journalists about the power dynamics in the city, the conversational vibe went beyond neighborly and into a new exciting phase of the collaborative.

After all, someone’s gotta do it. Without falling too deep into the “Death of Newspapers” discussion, suffice it to say that we’re witnessing a swift collapse of conventional local news reporting. And to be sure, a neighborhood blogger doesn’t have access to the breadth of resources and institutional heft that a newspaper provides. But a committed citizen can sometimes have more ability to push closer to the truth, and more commitment to keep on a story as it develops.

The resulting information may only ever reach a small handful of people who care about it, as opposed to the masses skimming the paper over coffee and during commutes. But passionate, organized small groups are usually what make large-scale change happen.

In picking up where traditional media fell off, will the hyperlocal blogosphere be able to restore and even improve the civic balance? It’s not yet clear. But the exciting thing is: it’s up to us.

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>Apps for Democracy: A Yelp for Social Services?

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DC was one of the first cities in the country to have a Chief Technology Officer, and CTO Vivek Kundra has displayed some remarkable leadership in his short period of time in office. Last year, he spearheaded a contest called “Apps for Democracy,” in which private citizens and public agencies alike created web applications that tapped into DC’s extensive public data trove to make some pretty neat web applications (things like a real-time ‘location-aware’ police alert tool, or a site that matches safe walking routes to popular bars). The contest was hailed as a major success, and they’re running it again now.

One proposed idea came to our attention (via Susie Cambria): a guide to public and private social services in DC. Basically, the proposed plan would provide a dynamic map of resources–much like the DC Food Finder–for all kinds of critical services like medical clinics, public agencies, emergency shelters, etc. In addition to all the salient information about how to access a particular site, user feedback could provide a fuller picture of the operational capacity of each site.

In fact, we’ve previously suggested something much like this here on this blog: think of a Yelp for social services.

Now, it seems like apps built for this particular contest are limited to public data (as opposed to info about non-governmental organizations like Bread for the City) — and I’m not sure if that is by rule or simply default due to limited participant capacity. But through the FoodFinder we’ve shown that it is possible to accumulate a city’s worth of data about a broad range of NGO services. By crowdsourcing the process, it becomes even more feasible.

I don’t want to get too nerdy about this, but it’s kind of a big deal. Here at Bread for the City, our staff possess an enormous (though still incomplete) amount of knowledge about how the city works; this is valuable information that, if it could be publicly combined with that of our partners in the field, would create a full view of how the city is working for residents in need. Not only would that help social workers and engaged citizens do their important work, but it would help us all hold our government agencies accountable. So go vote!


From the Sunlight Foundation‘s t-shirt (which I happen to be wearing today!). They host the Apps for America contest.
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>BFC on TV: Lie To Me

>It was only a matter of time until the networks came calling.

This Wednesday, during the season finale of Lie To Me (FOX, 8pm), Bread for the City will make our explosive prime-time television debut. Sort of. It’s hard to explain without probably totally spoiling what very well may be riveting drama. (Although it also doesn’t seem that anyone at Bread for the City has ever watched this program before, so we cannot vouch for the likelihood of prospective riveting.)

We can, however, vouch that the show is set in Washington, DC, so our cameo will certainly bestow that critical air of authenticity. We are proud to play a role in bringing this fine city to greater national prominence.

So spread the buzz! Plan a drinking game of some sort! Tune in on Wednesday night at 8pm! And be proud: you knew about us before we blew up. Email us with your name and address to receive an autographed, personalized copy of our most recent direct mail solicitation.

Disclaimer: Bread for the City is not currently lying, and never will knowingly lie in the future, to you.

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