- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 18, 2004

It wasn’t easy, but Sherry Matthews, an ambitious 33-year-old Silver Spring mother, is getting her life together with the help of a network of somebodies.

“Somebody knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody,” Ms. Matthews said yesterday, explaining how she called on a variety of individuals who lead her each step of the way toward independence. “I’m a determined individual,” she said.

That first somebody contacted by Ms. Matthews worked for a life skills program and she helped Ms. Matthews enroll. Another somebody gave Ms. Matthews information about a county-subsidized housing complex where she secured her first apartment.

And a whole lot of somebodies laced up their walking shoes so 180 District-area organizations might fund the type of social services programs that helped Ms. Matthews and countless others leave homelessness behind.

Some of those bodies again will take to the streets around the Mall tomorrow morning to raise money at the 17th annual “Help for the Homeless Walkathon.” Last year, organizers said 100,000 participants raised $6.5 million, and the main sponsor, the Fannie Mae Foundation, is hoping to exceed that number this year.

The 5 kilometer walk also is designed to raise awareness about the changing face of homelessness, said Stacey D. Stewart, president and chief executive officer of the foundation. Yesterday, she talked seriously about the long-term problem of homelessness. With the housing crisis, “the regular, everyday, average family faces a harder challenge in trying to have a roof over their heads.” The nonprofit Fannie Mae Foundation seeks to create affordable homeowning opportunities through partnerships and to prevent homelessness. Some walkathon funds go to emergency shelters, but a wide range of self-help services receive grants, too.

On any given day, about 14,000 people in this area have no permanent residence. Nearly half are families, while one-third are children. This figure includes people utilizing shelters, staying with friends and family, living on the streets or living in transitional or subsidized housing.

While the stereotypical face of homeless is that of adult alcoholic or drug-addicted men, only 10 percent of the area’s homeless population lives in the streets. Many more, almost one-third, are employed adults, primarily working mothers.

Two factors contribute to homelessness even for the working poor: unemployment or low wages and the lack of affordable housing.

To increase purchasing power, D.C. Council member David A. Catania, at-large independent, won approval of a bill to raise the city’s minimum wage from $6.15 to $7 an hour by 2006. It was last adjusted in 1997. The rate in Virginia and Maryland is $5.15 an hour.

Working full time at $6.15 an hour nets $12,792 annually, barely above the national poverty guideline for a family of two. The Fannie Mae Foundation estimates that 100,000 households in the region live on less than $10,000 annually. Working full time at $6.15 an hour, it takes 26 eight-hour days to afford the average one-bedroom apartment at $1,300 per month.

“We need policies over time that support the supply of affordable housing, which will ultimately bring an end to homelessness,” Mrs. Stewart said. On Wednesday, a coalition of more than 50 D.C. organizations started the Campaign for Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning to spur more development of housing for low- to moderate-income residents. Their proposal would require all developers to include cheaper units in their projects.

Based on their data, the price of homes for sale rose four times faster than incomes, while rents rose three times faster from January 1999 to March 2003.

“Every county is experiencing pressure trying to find housing for people who make under the median income,” Mrs. Stewart said. Last summer, the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless opened a transitional housing complex developed from a renovated motel. It also operates a pilot program called “Housing First” in cooperation with the Partnership for Permanent Housing.

“Homeownership is my next goal,” said Ms. Matthews. Once, she shared space with her mother, two daughters and her sister and her four children.

Montgomery County’s training programs for the homeless “afforded me a chance to have a little structure on parenting and life skills and getting back into the workplace,” Ms. Matthews said.

She “greatly appreciates,” the walkathon volunteers’ support, which she hopes they continue for others “with lots of love.” Now an office manager at a Rockville law firm, Ms. Matthews attends Saturday college, has learned how to manage money, “saved a little bit,” and moved up to another, more spacious apartment.

“The program supported me and gave me hope,” she said.

Ms. Matthews earns “more than $10 an hour” and pays $488 a month rent plus utilities for a two-bedroom apartment (that rents normally for more than $1,000).

She dreams of someday owning her own business with which she can “help others who struggle through life and are not able to move forward.” No doubt she will be successful with the help of a whole lot of somebodies.

The Help the Homeless Walkathon begins tomorrow with sign-up at 7 a.m. and the walk at 9 a.m. on the Mall. The starting line begins around Fourth Street NW. The registration fee is $25 for adults and $15 for children. All proceeds, with the exception of $5 that pays for a T-shirt, go directly into the fund. You can sign up online at www.helpthehomelessdc.org, or call 877-WALK-HTH.

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