The story of Washington, D.C., tells a tale of two cities. One of them is an epicenter of wealth and power, the seat of the most powerful government in the world. It is a tourist hotspot that attracts millions to the National Mall to marvel at monuments to past presidents and soldiers. It is a hub of education, boasting the Smithsonian museums and several major universities.
The other is a small Southern city, wrought with fascinating history and populated by individuals who fled north following the Civil War. Being in the shadow of the Capitol has not spared it the plights that have plagued other major urban areas. It’s now speckled with construction cranes that attest to renewed efforts to revitalize a once economically dragging metropolitan area.
Gentrification is the cure, and new Starbucks and high-rise condos are the medicine. As wealthy professionals have moved back into the city, murder rates have fallen from 482 in 1991, an all-time high and a figure that briefly bestowed the city the title of “Murder capital of the United States,” to fewer than 200 in 2005. Violent crime, assault and robbery have seen similar drops per capita. Urban renewal is not without its drawbacks—unseating established neighborhoods and causing property values to skyrocket out of reach for many families. Some have been forced into inadequate or overcrowded living conditions. And the city continues to suffer from a burgeoning homeless population and one of the highest-spending, poorest-performing public school systems in the country.
Mark Harmon has seen much transition in the city. Harmon has been in the area for 27 years, and runs the Washington branch of the Center for Student Missions (CSM), an organization that brings groups into the city to work with various ministries and agencies in hopes of educating the participants about social problems while strengthening their faith and solidifying their groups. CSM maintains a permanent presence in Washington as well as eight other large cities across the country.
Harmon says many of the problems facing Washington, D.C., are due to a breakdown of the family. “There are less and less two-parent families in our cities,” Harmon says. “This has led to more things like teen pregnancy, drugs and crime, and education has been devalued. When you don’t have parental involvement in the schools, it’s almost like the parents are fighting them.” Harmon says that many of the public schools have poor graduation rates. “Out of every 100 kids who start the ninth grade, less than 20 graduate in a four-year cycle, and less than 50 graduate at all. And they’re graduating with a fifth- or sixth-grade reading level, so they’re not really prepared to go out and do anything.”
Lack of education exacerbates problems in a city lacking low-skilled jobs that pay enough to support a family. There is plenty of work available in Washington, a city full of professional and government jobs, but many jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree. Of those who graduate from Washington’s public schools, only 9 percent will have completed a college degree within five years, according to a recent article in The Washington Post.
While some might find it puzzling that such poor circumstances lie so close to the Capitol building, it is the government programs that are often the least effective, according to Harmon. “I’ve been here long enough to see that a lot of the government programs aren’t really succeeding,” he says. Many nonprofits that receive government assistance get bogged down in accounting and paperwork. “I wish the government would just leave a lot of these nonprofits alone. If you’re a small two-, three-person nonprofit, you have to have one person to do the paperwork. You have a whole lot of reporting that takes one person’s time and energy that could be spent doing ministry stuff.”
Most often, civilians are the ones who take the initiative to change the city, and succeed where the government might not. “There are ministries we work with and I know about who are doing great things in housing and education,” Harmon says. Unique Learning Center is a ministry that has afforded children new opportunities that may not have otherwise been available. “Some of these kids live 10 or 12 blocks from the Capitol and have never been there or to any of the Smithsonian stuff, never even thought about going to college,” Harmon says. “The woman who runs that ministry has been able to give them a vision for themselves. She’s got kids who’ve gone on to Boston College, Temple, Hampton; she’s got a kid going to Syracuse this year as a freshman.”
CSM also works with the DC Central Kitchen, which is decidedly not a soup kitchen. It started in 1989 by redistributing leftover food from the presidential inauguration. Since then, they’ve grown into an operation that creates 4,000 meals each day by recycling one ton of unused food. DC Central Kitchen is staffed by graduates of their Culinary Job Training Program, which trains homeless men and women to be employed in the food service industry.
Another program in Washington is Samaritan Ministries, which uses their Next Step program to help hundreds of homeless each month by giving them simple, measurable steps toward independence. “They take them baby steps at a time, giving them money to get an ID or for a bus fare,” Harmon says. “They take them all the way from homeless out on the street, no job, nothing, all the way up to an apartment or a job. Companies that have worked with them before know this person’s going to be a good employee.”
“There are lots of ministries like that in DC, and I am encouraged by the slow steps they’re taking,” Harmon says. “There are ministries that are making a difference.”