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Bread for the City: Helping People Live and Thrive in a Changing D.C.

By David O'Boyle

June 21, 2016

The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center is leading an effort to explore how gentrification in the District of Columbia is affecting nonprofit organizations serving the city's neighborhoods.

Through upcoming profiles, we aim to show how the changing face of D.C.'s communities force these nonprofits to be innovative in seeking solutions so they can continue to carry out their missions and best serve its clients.

Since 1974 Bread for the City has been providing services for low-income residents in the District of Columbia in five core areas—food, clothing, medical care, legal help, and social services. Operating out of two centers in the District—one in the Northwest quadrant, the other in Southeast—Bread for the City runs a sort of one-stop shop for comprehensive services for the most vulnerable populations "in an atmosphere of dignity and respect."

In recent years, as the District's economic landscape has undergone a dramatic transformation, leaders at Bread for the City have identified a need for a sixth core program focused on advocacy.

"[The issue of affordable housing] is so dire that we can't leave any stone unturned because every unit counts," says George Jones, chief executive officer of Bread for the City, adding that the nonprofit has spent the past five years developing and strengthening its advocacy arm. "Every unit we can preserve or have developed is going to make a big difference."

In the midst of the city's rapid gentrification, there has not yet been a drop in the number of clients utilizing Bread for the City's services due to displacement. The nonprofit's 7th and P Street NW location still serves approximately 2,500 households each month.

"We have to remain vigilant," says Jones. "Some of our sister organizations have already proactively sold off property and moved off of 14th Street NW" to a new home base. These days, whether or not they should relocate is a question that District nonprofits must ask themselves on a regular basis as the city continues to evolve economically.

In response to growing income disparities in the District, Bread for the City's board of directors voted to expand the organization's food program, providing families with a five-day supply of groceries instead of just three days' worth of food.

"Those groceries were not going nearly as far as they went before the economy in D.C. started to rebound and the costs associated with housing and other expenses shot up for our clients just like they did for everyone else," says Jones.

Jones says Bread for the City also has started to shift its attention to issues relating to racial and economic inequalities, and to tailor its programs around its clients instead of institutions. Among the solutions it has implemented are extended evening hours so clients who work nontraditional jobs can still access the nonprofit's services and transportation assistance for those who need it.

Bread for the City also emphasizes client input and involvement. A majority of its 15-member board are clients or individuals who have availed of its medical services. The rest are members or leaders of the local community.

Additionally, Bread for the City has established a client advisory council to facilitate client feedback and advice about the nonprofit's performance. "We try to make our services address the issues of unintentional biases or inequities," says Jones.

Jones says it is vital for the District government to be involved in these issues to counter the negative effects of gentrification on the city's low-income residents. "If we're going to create solutions to the major challenges that people in poverty face, the long-term solutions lie in a stronger, more progressive public policy around issues like housing," he says.

In his experience, Jones says District government officials have been involved both at the executive and legislative levels in crafting policies that do not hurt the city's poor. According to Jones, it is the job of both government and nonprofits like Bread for the City to ensure low-income residents have the resources they need to live and thrive in the District.

"We in the nonprofit sector have always talked about putting ourselves out of work," says Jones. "But the spirit of that is we want to put ourselves out of work because poverty has been solved, not because our clients have been displaced from their homes and neighborhoods."