Where compassion meets the reality of dollars and cents: Behind the multimillion dollar homeless services nonprofit that sometimes evicts people
When local activist Lindsey Jones-Renaud learned that her friend Yolanda Corbett received an eviction notice this fall, she was shocked. Jones-Renaud assumed her friend would always be safe in her home since Corbett was living in a property managed by So Others Might Eat (SOME), a local homeless services nonprofit that also provides affordable housing.
A regular donor and volunteer at SOME since 2011, Jones-Renaud has worked with nonprofits and has been involved with social justice advocacy for years. Her husband even applied for a job with the organization in the past, but neither of them ever knew that it evicted people from their programs from time to time.
“I was just flabbergasted that it was part of their model,” she recalled during a recent interview.
Disappointed and upset about what was happening to her friend, Jones-Renaud dashed off an email to SOME and canceled her recurring monthly donation. She also organized an online petition calling on the nonprofit to halt any pending evictions, and she spread the word about it via Twitter. Her petition, which had garnered about 60 signatures as of a few weeks ago, demanded the group publicly reveal the number of past evictions it pursued and explain how it had ever gotten in the business of evicting people.
“It’s an issue of transparency,” she said. “Of course they don’t talk about their evictions because they don’t want people to know about that.”
In the world of homeless service nonprofits operating in D.C., SOME is a behemoth. With more than $35 million in annual revenue, 400 full-time employees, and 9,000 volunteers, the organization provides tens of thousands of people every year with a range of services, including health care, job training, daily meals, and housing.
In its strategic plan published in August, the nonprofit laid out ambitions to grow its current stock of about 1,300 affordable housing units to 2,000 units within the next five years. Though SOME’s housing portfolio is generally tailored to people making less than 30% of the median family income for D.C., its strategic plan calls for the possibility of a much more diverse collection of properties to include those meant for people making up to 80% of the median family income. Despite all this, the nonprofit has occasionally evicted some people from its housing over the years — a practice that has proved contentious in the past for SOME and for comparable organizations elsewhere.
Behind the evictions process at SOME
Despite the criticism in Jones-Renaud’s petition, SOME said it is not in the business of evicting people. In its annual report for 2020, the nonprofit reported providing housing to 1,449 people across its properties.
Though evictions occur from time to time at the nonprofit’s properties, they are rare, according to a statement provided by the SOME. “Less than 10% of our resident base is entered into court-monitored payment plans or the correct-or-vacate process annually; executed evictions have not exceeded single digits in the past five years (2017-2021),” the statement says.
According to Katara Coates, the senior vice president and chief administrative officer at SOME, most of these evictions have occurred when residents pose a threat to others in their community. She estimated that prior to the pandemic, SOME evicted less than 6% to 7% of its tenants annually due to nonpayment of rent.
A 2020 study published by Georgetown University found that nearly 11 out of 100 renter households in the city had received an eviction filing in 2018. But the report also noted vast disparities in eviction filings that year, with 25% of renters in Ward 8 receiving one, compared to 3% in Ward 2.
While Corbett received an eviction notice — an early step in the process — no one has been evicted from SOME properties during the pandemic even with the city’s moratorium no longer in effect.
In a testament to SOME’s desire to help people secure stable housing, Coates said, the nonprofit helped 450 of its residents secure a total of $730,000 from Stay D.C., the city’s emergency financial assistance program.
“Our job is to support people in housing — our job is not to vilify and get rid of them,” Ralph Boyd, the president and CEO of SOME, said during a recent interview.
Nonetheless, he defended the nonprofit’s policy of pursuing evictions when tenants owe large amounts of back rent.
“Because there is so much support, and so much subsidy, there is an expectation that for what we’re doing to work, people have to have an oar in the water for themselves and their families,” Boyd said. “And if they don’t, it won’t work.”
If tenants fall behind on rent for several years, he said, then other participants might question whether they should pay rent either, putting the entire program’s success and model in jeopardy.
Boyd also pointed to the housing nonprofit’s financial obligations as further reason it needs to be firm in the expectation that its tenants pay their rent on time.
“At the end of the day, we are a business,” he said of the need to adhere to fiscally sound policies. “When you look at the size of our balance sheet, and all of the real estate, housing that we operate and the clinics that we operate, there’s a certain amount of debt that’s attached to those assets.”
In Corbett’s case, she owed 2 1/2 years’ worth of back rent.
Finding help through SOME
It was sometime in 2017 when Corbett, a native Washingtonian and single mother, first encountered SOME. She was at a job fair trying to find a better way to care for herself and her three children. Public assistance and a housing voucher just were not enough. She spoke to a representative from SOME and signed up to participate in a medical administration workforce training program that provides participants with a clear pathway to employment. In her assessment, the program was nearly perfect.
“They remove all barriers for you to be able to successfully participate and be able to find a good outcome of employment,” she said. “You don’t have to pay for anything. They help you get your scrubs because you have to wear scrubs while you’re there. They pay for your books. They even pay for the certification and even pay for your transportation.”
While Corbett did not find a job in medical administration at the end of the program, she became an administrative assistant at SOME in early 2018. The full-time job paid $17.23 an hour. She felt her life turning around.
“When I connected with SOME, in a way, it was really … signifying a new beginning for me and my children,” Corbett said.
The challenge of keeping stable housing
When Corbett first started work at SOME, she was sharing a federal housing voucher with her twin brother, renting a home in Southeast D.C. that she said was in horrible condition. The house was riddled with mold and lacking any heat or air-conditioning. What’s worse is that one of her sons has asthma, making her all the more desperate to get the family into a safer place. The house was simply uninhabitable. So, Corbett took her children and left. For a while, they couch-surfed.
Then, one day, Corbett said, she reluctantly brought the issue up at work, despite misgivings. As a SOME employee, Corbett said, she felt like there might be an inherent “conflict of interest.” She knew all about SOME’s procedures for providing housing assistance and worried that she would be breaking the usual protocol by asking for immediate help.
But to Corbett’s surprise, SOME agreed to help her. If not for the personal connection, Corbett doesn’t think she could’ve been connected with housing so quickly.
“No one’s going to walk off the street and be like, ‘Hey, I got these deplorable conditions. I need housing now.’ It’s not how the model is set up,” she explained.
In 2018, Corbett moved into a three-bedroom, one-bath town house across the street from SOME’s main building. During this time, staff members told her that she needed to give up her housing voucher as a pre-condition of being able to move into the property.
According to SOME, that’s because the D.C. Housing Authority would not process her application to move into the property if she was actively listed in their system on another voucher.
She was hesitant at first. It was a voucher that was passed down from her mother. Once she gave it up, she knew it would be awhile before she could ever obtain another one. On the other hand, she needed a place for her family and her family’s lifestyle differed from that of her brother, who was single.
“Even the young lady that I was speaking to, the specialist at D.C. Housing [Authority], was like ‘Are you sure?’ and reminded me, ‘Hey, you know, we can’t put you back on this voucher,’” Corbett said.
Ultimately, Corbett said she gave up the voucher, trusting that SOME’s housing program — which couples residents with intense “wraparound” counseling and career support services — would provide the security her family needed. She also thought that once she was accepted as a resident, her monthly rent burden of $899 would be reduced to 30% of her income, which at the time would have been around $640.
“The majority of SOME’s housing programs are for residents who are at 30% [of the Area Median Income], but there is a range of rates depending on the property type and subsidy source,” the nonprofit said in a statement. “A few of our properties have flat fee rents and are subsidized by private donors (not governmental sources).”
Fair market rent for a three-bedroom in Corbett’s general neighborhood is about $3,800, according to the D.C. Housing Authority.
Soon after she moved into her new home, Corbett learned that her income meant she was overqualified for SOME’s case management and coaching services and that she would not receive a discount on her monthly rent. Without a car, she said, she initially struggled with shuttling her three children to and from school and was spending hundreds each week on ride-hailing services.
Before long, she fell behind on rent and worked out a payment plan with her property manager. Eventually, however, SOME asked her to pay the full amount she owed on her monthly rent. But Corbett continued to accumulate more and more past-due amounts. A few months ago, she found an eviction notice tacked to her door.
Dealing with the threat of an eviction
After learning of the eviction notice, Corbett said, she grappled with feelings of desperation, not knowing how she would be able to keep her family housed. She turned to social media and said she soon connected with the D.C. Office of the Tenant Advocate.
That office introduced her to a lawyer who helped her apply for STAY D.C. and file an application with the District’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP). She ended up receiving $9,000 in financial assistance from STAY DC and $26,000 from ERAP. She is now up to date on her rent.
According to SOME’s vice president and chief administrative officer, the organization’s supportive services team also had a role in helping connect Corbett with the financial help she needed.
Today, she continues living at the same property and works as a parent organizer at Advocates for Justice Inc. She said she is still a bit dazed by her experience.
“It wasn’t about family, it wasn’t about seeing a colleague get sustainable, it was absolutely about the dollar,” she said of the way SOME handled the situation.
For her part, Jones-Renaud is relieved her friend wasn’t displaced. But when she tweeted her thanks earlier this month to those who signed the petition, she said the larger concern remains that a nonprofit housing provider like SOME would evict any of its tenants.
Though the organization’s president and CEO described what happened to Corbett as a “one-off incident” that is unlikely to recur, he said he can’t rule that out.
For Boyd, the nonprofit’s decision to help Corbett during her time of need and provide her with housing was an act of compassion. But since she was not granted housing through the nonprofit’s normal admission procedures, her experiences differed significantly from those of other program participants.
“Everybody wants her to be in our program and succeeding with our services,” Boyd said. “We’re about housing and saving. We don’t give up on people easily, and in most instances we don’t give up on people at all.”
As far as the online petition, Boyd said SOME is not planning on responding to it directly.
“I haven’t spent five minutes paying attention to what’s going on online, or any petitions,” Boyd said in response to a question. “We think we do the best we can for our brand if we just lock down and do what we do really well.”
From Boyd’s perspective, the nonprofit he oversees does a great job of providing a range of support — from housing and food to job training and health care — to the people who most need it.
“It’s real simple,” he said. “We want to help more people and help them get better and better and more effective in sustainable ways.”
This article was co-published with The DC Line.
Will Schick covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. Year one of this joint position was made possible by the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship, The Nash Foundation, and individual contributors.