Mitch Snyder, a homeless services advocate in Washington, D.C. during the 1970s and ‘80s, established homeless shelters and brought international attention to homelessness. Street homelessness was becoming rampant, brought on by a lack of jobs, a dearth of affordable housing and institutionalized patients being systematically released from state hospitals. In the early ‘70s, Snyder joined the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), a homelessness activist group. He and other CCNV activists entered and occupied the abandoned old Federal City building on Second Street NW, between D and E Streets, on a temporary basis. However, to keep from losing the building, they refused to leave. After a protracted battle, the Reagan Administration conceded and Snyder received city support to renovate the building. CCNV evolved into a 1,350-bed shelter, the largest in the country, and now is the home of the DC Central Kitchen, Clean and Sober Streets, Unity Health Care and two separate shelter programs - Open Door and John Young.
In addition to CCNV, other shelters, designed as temporary places of refuge, sprang up throughout the city in church basements and community centers. Homeless individuals with short-term financial or personal problems managed to work their way into permanent housing, while those with physical disabilities, mental health, substance abuse, or co-occurring disorders were left without the supportive services necessary to navigate the system.
In 1987, Father Ed Guinan, the founder of 15-year-old Zacchaeus Community Kitchen, moved the well-patronized soup kitchen from near 14th and Q Streets NW to First Congregational United Church of Christ at 10th and G Streets NW. John Mack, the church’s pastor, openly welcomed the kitchen, which provided daily meal services to the hungry and homeless patrons of DC.
Eleven years later, the DowntownDC BID set up and funded the Downtown Services Center at the church. The Center brought together numerous DC nonprofits to assist the 300 to 400 homeless individuals who already gathered at the church for breakfast. The Center also provided showers and laundry facilities. In 2000, the Fannie Mae Foundation bestowed its Good Neighbor Award on the DowntownDC BID, recognizing its exemplary work with the homeless population through the Downtown Services Center. The Center closed seven years later when First Congregational Church began demolishing its building as part of a project to build a new church, retail and Class A office space, and underground parking. At that time, the DowntownDC BID shifted its homeless services focus toward a pragmatic, street-to-independence outreach program to move the chronically homeless into housing.
Housing First, endorsed by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) as a progressive-best-practice approach to end chronic homelessness, became the DowntownDC BID’s blueprint for addressing homelessness. Housing first recognizes that the solution to homelessness is stability through housing connected with supportive services. Our goal is to place the most hard-to-serve homeless population into stable housing and connect them to supportive services that can help them remain housed. To date, the DowntownDC BID has moved about 250 homeless persons in Downtown into permanent supportive housing, with 85-90% still residing in those homes.