The Church of the Epiphany looks different on a Saturday afternoon. There are no robed choir members singing hymns. The black iron gate, usually wide open, is padlocked shut, and the only way in is through a back door in the alley, propped open with a stick.
It’s a far cry from the joyful spirit that emanates from the downtown church on Sunday mornings, but the Saturday visitors are there to find a similar slice of hope. In the quiet upstairs office, one homeless man and one homeless woman spend their afternoon drafting social media posts and editing photos on bulky, donated computers, with a volunteer teacher guiding them. They’re students of Digital Hope, a training program that aims to equip the city’s hardest-to-employ citizens with one of the most sought-after career skills: digital marketing.
In the broadest sense, the program — which began in 2014 and remains in its pilot phase four years later — aims to address the glaring unemployment crisis facing most of DC’s nearly 7,000 homeless residents. According to a January snapshot by DC’s Continuum of Care, only about 32 percent of homeless adults in the District who receive some form of income rely on traditional employment as their primary source of income. Only 24 percent of homeless adults in DC are employed, period.
Though several local programs and organizations are working to tackle that problem, Digital Hope sets a particularly high bar by reaching beyond unskilled or entry-level jobs.
District market labor data confirms that the majority of jobs available in the area require a bachelor’s degree or higher, though a third of residents have only a high school diploma. And positions with some of the highest-paying wages in the DC area, such as marketing managers and computer-information-system managers, do not usually correlate with the sort of employment training that’s available for those experiencing homelessness.
Digital Hope — an outgrowth of Street Sense Media — strives to make homeless individuals competitive for these types of higher-paying jobs, teaching the marketing, design and writing skills they can use as independent contractors. The larger goal is putting them on track toward a level of economic stability that allows them to shoulder the area’s notoriously high and ever-rising housing costs.
As one of the program’s current participants, Reginald Black, puts it plainly: “The root problem of homelessness is that we don’t have enough income.”
On a recent Saturday, Black was the first to arrive at the Church of the Epiphany for the Digital Hope class. He carried with him an oversized hiking bag and a backpack, together containing everything he owns.
A native Washingtonian from Southeast, Black became homeless in 2007 when he moved out of his father’s home due to differences between them. But his struggles gaining employment date back to 2003 when he was expelled from high school. Black felt he never truly fit in when he was a kid. Students bullied him and characterized him as a “nerd.” But he always stood up for himself, channeling the “warrior” he said was inside of him.
Black eventually received his high school diploma in 2005 at Potomac Job Corps, a local technical and vocational school. He next advanced into a two-year work-based program in accounting, but those plans were derailed when he got caught selling pot — the same practice that’s now extremely profitable for the many dispensaries that have popped up in the District after the legalization of medical marijuana. He also lost out on the $1,200 stipend that came with the accounting program.
Even with that stipend, though, Black believes he would have struggled financially. And the paychecks from his various odd jobs — doing temporary concierge work, selling flowers, working as a janitor at FedEx Field — weren’t enough to cover his housing costs.
“I was trying to save for a place to live,” he said, but the temp economy couldn’t sustain such a goal. “At the end of the day I was ripping and running trying to find a place to sleep,” said Black, describing how once on a cold November night, he found shelter in a boiler room — which he credits for saving him from hypothermia.
It was in the summer of 2008, after picking up his last check for a canvassing gig and standing on a street corner, that Black would change his outlook.
“I could hear someone talking about being homeless and having a job,” he recalled. The man Black encountered was selling copies of Street Sense, a DC newspaper with a focus on poverty-related issues that is distributed and partially written by homeless or formerly homeless individuals.
At the time, Black didn’t have the donation money for a copy — “I heckled him for a paper,” he said — but the interaction ultimately led him to the same work himself, selling Street Sense on corners across every quadrant of DC.
Black next started writing for Street Sense, penning the column Will Write for Food for two years. He even helped produce a short documentary film in 2014 — Fairness Rising, which advocates for fair and equal access to housing and assistance for those experiencing homelessness.
Later that same year, Black’s strong portfolio led to an invitation to join the Digital Hope program.
During a recent class this summer, Black was working in Adobe Photoshop to perfect a GIF of a bartender pouring a glass of draft beer — part of a larger social media campaign commissioned by local client Lost & Found Bar on 9th Street. In the past Digital Hope has produced projects for clients such as Culmore Clinic in Falls Church, Va., and Umma Clinic in Los Angeles.
Black and fellow classmate Sasha Williams developed and pitched to Lost & Found a proposal that promises the delivery of five pieces of social media content per month, with compensation based on level of experience, time spent on the project, and market value of the content. As with Digital Hope’s other client projects, the agreement will remain in place as long as the client is pleased with the work.
“Walk me through what you’re doing here, Reggie,” said Merrybelle Guo, the designated volunteer teacher for this week. A campaign manager for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Guo specializes in using social media for content marketing.
Black is one of just two students still involved with Digital Hope in its fourth year as a pilot program. Up to four people had been participating, but the others have filtered in and out over time.
The project is the brainchild of Adam Motiwala, who works as account manager at the Tysons Corner brand and digital platform agency called Fifth Tribe. After befriending a Street Sense writer in 2014 and then hiring him for contract work, Motiwala created Digital Hope with the goal of training homeless men and women in digital marketing skills, and matching them to freelance jobs.
Because this work can often be performed remotely, the realities of homelessness — a lack of permanent address or interview suit, for example — are not automatic disqualifiers.
“We want our students to attract work because of their ability,” Guo said.
Back in 2015, Digital Hope raised about $10,000 through grants from the DC Social Innovation Project, George Washington University’s Knapp Fellowship for Entrepreneurial Service-Learning, and an Indiegogo campaign sponsored by Street Sense. The funds allowed the program to pay its students a $25 stipend for each class attended, in addition to the payment for their work.
But Motiwala said those grants have since run out. He and his volunteer teachers have pitched in funds out of their own pockets, but the students are no longer receiving the stipends.
If Digital Hope had more resources, Guo believes the program could help students better develop their skills and portfolios. The two current students are only able to meet each Saturday, when Epiphany’s upstairs offices are empty. The older model computers are often so slow, class time is wasted waiting for programs to load.
Because of the infrequent access to necessary software, students have to cram their work into tight timeframes. Guo says having even one more volunteer who could loan a laptop or offer support to students while they’re using library computers would be a great help.
Maybe related to its sparse resources, Digital Hope faces additional setbacks with a lack of consistent clients, projects to work on, and the fact that even with such training, the stigma of homelessness remains a huge barrier to employment.
For Black, the goal is to find work creating content for nonprofits whose mission is to serve others experiencing homelessness, like him. But despite his new skills, this hasn’t proved easy so far, and Black remains homeless. He spends his nights at 801 East Men’s Shelter in Southeast, sells newspapers on the streets, and serves as a constituent representative for Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Interagency Council on Homelessness.
“We talk about taking people with lived experience and embedding them in the work, but it’s not catching on,” Black said of his frustrations. “If they’re not willing to hire the community they’re trying to help, it’s an ineffective solution.”
But he recognizes the value in the training he has received through this program. “DC is becoming tech-heavy,” he said. “It makes these skills very important, and the class gives me real-life work experience.”
This post has been updated to correct a reference to where Merrybelle Guo works and to include information on The March on Washington Film Festival’s fellowship.