“We found her.”
Gunther sounded tired, but his voice carried a quiet note of victory as he entered the office one Tuesday afternoon. Three hours earlier, he’d set out, accompanied by Adriana, an outreach worker from Miriam’s Kitchen, with a seemingly simple mission: find Ellen. (The names of our guests have been changed to protect their identities.) Ellen is likely eligible to receive supplemental security income (SSI). When combined with other forms of assistance, supplemental income can make a big difference in helping our guests get off the streets and into housing.
The only challenge? Ellen had to agree to the arrangement and sign paperwork. First, they had to find her. However, Ellen has a reputation – “almost legendary,” according to Gunther – for being reclusive.
The search began at 27th and K streets, where Gunther last saw Ellen. She wasn’t around, but a homeless man there confirmed he recently saw her. The next stop was Arlington, one of her usual spots. Crossing the Key Bridge, a woman Gunther knew pointed to the place where Ellen often sleeps: “But I haven’t seen her in awhile.” And so it went for the next several encounters: “Yeah,” a homeless person would affirm, “I sometimes see her around here. But she hasn’t been around in awhile.”
A visit to a homeless services center in Arlington didn’t turn up any more substantive leads, so it was back across the bridge and up the hill to the Georgetown Library. There, finally, the stalwart outreach team had a stroke of luck. When Gunther told two regulars, Mike and John, who he was looking for, John implored: “Gunther, you gotta do something for Ellen.” Gunther gave them his phone number, and continued searching. It wasn’t long before the phone rang. John was on the line: “She’s in Rose Park.”
Once at Rose Park, Gunther spotted her on a bench at the far end of the park. “What you have to know about Ellen,” Gunther shared later, “is how reclusive she can be. Everyone who knows her knows you won’t get more than a couple of words out of her.” So he was pleasantly surprised when she was willing to engage with Adriana and sign the SSI paperwork. At the end of the day Gunther checked his phone to see how far he’d walked that day. Including a trip downtown for a mental health advocacy meeting, he’d traveled 11.5 miles by foot. He estimates that 8 of those miles were dedicated to searching for Ellen.
From the perspective of moving people into permanent housing, signing SSI paperwork might look like a small win. But from the standpoint of an individual for whom personal connections and relationships are a challenge, such a hurdle represents an enormous victory. It takes years of relationship building, hours of conversation, and sometimes miles of walking in a day to get there. For Ellen, it took a network of people willing to speak out for her and a level of personal resilience and courage to take these steps. For all of us at GMC, the journey to small successes can be a long one. But whether it’s 10 miles or 10 years, no journey happens without the first step. What next step can you take to walk with our guests on their journeys home?
Want to take the next step with us? Find out how you can help!