A little girl dressed in bright clothes toddles around the waiting room in the Capitol Hill Group Ministry’s (CHGM) office, perusing the candy offerings set out the week before Easter. Her mom is seated waiting for an appointment and gestures for her daughter to come sit. Before she makes it back, Karen Cunningham steps into the room, kneels down next the girl with a smile on her face, and starts talking with her.
It’s one-on-one moments like these that Cunningham, executive director of CHGM, hoped to create by moving the ministry’s scattered offices into one building (415 Second St. NE). With some 16 years’ experience in the legal services field and nearly four years with CHGM, Cunningham knows the key components of running a successful nonprofit social service group – support for staff as well as clients, a welcoming and safe space, and dedicated counselors. “I love all the people I get to work and meet with that inspire me every day,” Cunningham said.
For nearly 50 years CHGM and its partner congregations in Ward 6 have helped homeless families navigate their crises and find the programs available to them. With Cunningham’s leadership that service has grown to meet the continuing needs of people who might otherwise find themselves on the streets.
From Legal to Service Work
Cunningham is the youngest of six children – four adopted – with one of Native-American and three of African-America heritage. Since moving to DC from Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1998 to obtain her law degree at Georgetown University, Cunningham has embraced the District as her home. In her work helping people who have endured domestic violence or homelessness, she has worked with several organizations: Women Empowered Against Violence (WEAVE), the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the National Law Aid & Defender Association, and Equal Justice Works.
The job at CHGM gives her a chance to work with those suffering right in her own city. “I really enjoy being connected to my community and serving people that I see every day and that are a part of my home,” she said.
Recently Cunningham and the staff at CHGM met a man, a veteran, who thought the military had dishonorably discharged him years ago, disqualifying him from financial support. He had lived on the streets for years. CHGM discovered that he was wronged. “This person went from living on the street to having access to housing and years of back benefits,” Cunningham said. All it took was someone listening to him.
That’s what Cunningham wants to push – sharing these stories and getting residents and leaders in DC to understand the people facing homelessness and the problems they confront.
Enlisting Leaders, Residents to Battle Homelessness
About a year ago, Capitol Hill resident Cecelia Burns went looking for a volunteer opportunity and came across CHGM’s new HART program, the Homeless Assistance Response Team. She received training from the ministry’s staff to reach out to the homeless around the Hill. “As I walk around Capitol Hill … I’m reminded all the time of the white privilege versus the homeless people,” Burns said. “It’s awful to witness it.”
HART volunteers try to bridge that divide by bringing food and warm clothes to the homeless. In the winter, during hypothermia alerts, Burns will call DC’s emergency services and ask for welfare checks on the homeless because she knows some will refuse shelter. “They’re so polite, grateful, so dignified,” Burns said of many homeless. “They never complain. They’re grateful for everything that we do.”
Cunningham started this program to expand CHGM’s reach in times of great need by enlisting the kindness of neighbors. In her vision for CHGM, she also wants to hire a development manager to innovate the outreach and get serious attention from DC legislators and the mayor.
Homelessness in DC is a mixed bag on progress, she remarked. Housing for veterans has improved. They succeeded in getting 14 chronically homeless individuals housed in 2016. But family homelessness remains a huge problem. “And it’s made worse by the rising housing costs in the city,” Cunningham explained.
Success at CHGM, though, relies on a strong business and staff structure.
Transforming the Group Ministry
Tammy Hunter, director of program operations for CHGM, has worked one-on-one with Cunningham since she took over as director in 2013. They shared an office until Cunningham found their new quarters in early 2017. “Karen has a heart to serve,” said Hunter. “She has a thirst to learn and understand the population that we serve and how the work we do every day can enhance the service we give.”
Part of that understanding means taking care of the staff. “When you are looking to grow and stretch and create room for people to be at the table, then you have to value people,” Hunter said. “That’s what we’re doing here.”
When a satellite office at Potomac Gardens public housing turned dangerous and taxing for staff, Cunningham got them out immediately. They had to move into another, already full office, but she wasn’t willing to compromise the lives of her staff, Hunter said.
For Cunningham, it matters. In order to serve the traumatized clients that walk through their doors, her staff have to know she has their back, she said. “To be able to hold the fear and anger and frustration that clients bring, and … to still be able to work with that client to find some hope and a plan forward,” Cunningham said, “then to have it not take a huge toll on their own spirits is important.”
Each day offers a new story, a new client, and a new set of challenges that Cunningham knows they can handle. “I’ve been here three and a half years and I’m still learning,” she noted. “And I expect I’ll still be learning three years from now.”