Homelessness nonprofit Friendship Place to honor five local advocates

Muriel Bowser is the D.C. mayor. (Brian Kapur/The Current/February 2016)

D.C. has among the highest rates of homelessness in the country, recording 124 homeless people per 10,000 residents in a 2016 survey of 32 states.

But the problem appears to be improving. There were 3 percent fewer homeless individuals past year, while the number of homeless families dropped by 22 percent, according to the city’s annual “point in time” count. And while 897 of 7,437 homeless D.C. residents did not have access to shelter according to the Jan. 25 study, the remainder had identified emergency or transitional housing, thanks in part to the city’s “housing first” policy.

Homelessness nonprofit Friendship Place mirrors this philosophy, working to “meet people where they are” by providing shelter for the homeless regardless of drug or mental health issues, president Jean-Michel Giraud told The Current.

“It’s a more humane way to work, because people are safe inside,” Giraud said. “If we were to leave people on the street, vulnerable people … we don’t know what would happen to them out there.”

This month, Friendship Place will honor five individuals and groups for their marked contributions to the cause of ending homelessness. Recipients of 20th annual Benjamin E. Cooper Awards include Mayor Muriel Bowser for helping to build D.C.’s homelessness services; board members Betty Boyle and Ellen Clifford; former Friendship Place client and current speaker Mark Gordon; and the Washington Hebrew Congregation, a longtime Friendship Place supporter.

The annual awards, named after a 17-year-old volunteer at Friendship Place who died in a car accident in 1997, will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 10, at the National United Methodist Church (formerly Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church), 3401 Nebraska Ave. NW.

Homelessness strikes a personal chord for honoree and board member Ellen Clifford. At 13, Clifford’s parents lost everything, she said. Teetering on the precipice of homelessness, Clifford’s family had to move across the U.S.

“There’s this big misconception that all homeless people are drug addicts and alcoholics, and they don’t want to come in for shelter. That’s just the story that people tell themselves,” Clifford said. “These are human beings … they have the same dreams for their lives and for their children that you have.”

While ascending the corporate ladder, Clifford has always carved out time to help the homeless outside of a demanding career in project management. She urged Northwest residents, no matter how busy, to lend a helping hand, whether with money or with time.

“The more you schedule your time, the more you put on your plate, the more efficient you become,” Clifford said. “An hour, two hours a month, can make a huge impact.”

Armed with more than 100 paid staff and 300 volunteers, Friendship Place prevented 1,372 District residents from experiencing homelessness last year, according to a June 28 news release. And recently, Amazon pledged up to $1 million to match other donations to Friendship Place. So far, the group has raised about $400,000 and has until Dec. 31 to come up with the rest.

“We’re so grateful for this award,” Giraud said. “It makes a huge difference.”