DC Central Kitchen’s Robert Egger Shares His Philosophy

An Interview by Kevin E. Cleary

   Robert Egger is the Founder and President of the DC Central Kitchen in Washington, DC.  The Kitchen takes donated food from regional food service businesses and prepares it for distribution to homeless people in the DC area.  The Kitchen also provides culinary training for homeless individuals, and its graduates have received jobs in the sector, as well as in the DC Central Kitchen’s Fresh Start Catering Program, where graduates cater events all over the area and earn a starting salary of $10 an hour, plus benefits. 

   Egger served as the interim director of United Way, and has written a book titled “Begging for Change” that discusses his practical experience in the non-profit sector and delivers the message that non-profits must “adapt or die.”  Additionally, Egger is the co-convener of the upcoming Non-Profit Congress, which will be held in Washington, DC on October 15-18th.

   He was also recently cited as one of “The Real Sexiest Men Alive” in Oprah Magazine for his years of work empowering others.  The Homeless Grapevine sat down with Mr. Egger in June, before a speaking engagement for the Community Care Network.

The Homeless Grapevine: Could you please tell us a little about how you came up with the idea for the DC Central Kitchen? 

Egger: Yeah, in the 1980s people were just like, “Wow, I know there’s issues in America, but who are these people, where do they come from?  And, like, what’s going on?”  I think particularly for those people who live in Washington, but imagine the visitors who came to DC to see the nation’s capital; and all of a sudden there’s homeless people out in front of the Washington monument, or the Lincoln memorial.  It’s pretty wiggy.  And like a lot of people, I was like,  “I feel sorry for them,” but I didn’t know what I could do. 

   And I ended up getting pulled out on this truck to volunteer one night.  And a bunch of things happened.   I didn’t look in the eyes of a homeless person and think, “Oh, I have to change my life,” as much as it was, “you all buy this food at every night?”  At the Safeway in Georgetown, which is the most expensive store on the planet.   

   And [I thought] “Whoa!  That’s crazy!  All the restaurants I work in, they love food and they hate throwing it away, but I bet if you could find a safe way to get it... There’s a mountain of food from restaurants, hotels, hospitals, caterers.” 

   But we pulled out in between George Washington University and the State Department on Virginia Avenue.  We made a U-turn off Virginia and pulled back around.  As we made this U-turn, I was in the back of this truck, and you could see out in the rain.  It was a drizzly night, and you could see this long line of people outside.  And we pulled up, and we were serving food.  On one level, it was totally different than I thought it would be.  The people were really nice, it was organized, you know, instead of the fear factor... which was there for me.  I was, like, you know, “What is it going to be like?”   

   But, it was so bizarre, because here we are, up in the safety and warmth of this van, doing the right thing, but I just felt that somehow, it had gotten off-track.  That somehow, we were the ones being served.  We were the ones feeling good at the end of the night because we had done a good deed, yet it was almost as if we somehow required those people to be outside in the rain in order for us to get that feeling of doing a good deed.  I just felt that somehow, this beautiful ideal had become twisted.   

   Let’s step back.  I was confused also because there were people also who looked like they were able to work.  In fact, at one point, I made somewhat of a disparaging remark to my wife, who was with me in the back [of the van] about this guy with a briefcase.  I said to my wife, “Look at that guy.  That’s just criminal, man.  There’s people out here who are really outside on the street, and this guy’s just trying to get some free food.”

   And my wife [said], ”Man, shut up!  Who are you to judge this guy?  You have no idea what this guy’s life is, and you know, what brought him here.  Shut up!”  And an interesting sidebar, about three years ago, I wrote about this guy in my book, and this first night.  And this woman called [me] up and said, “That’s my brother.”  And he was mentally ill, and he was on the street, and that was his schtick.  He had this briefcase, and he walked around DC with this briefcase, looking important.  It was totally wild.

   But [anyway], on the way back I’m thinking, “Man, if you could just somehow get all this food from the restaurants and hotels and bring it back to a central kitchen... you could split it up, divide it, cook it, and feed twice as many people better food for less money.  But you could also offer men and women a chance to get out of the line and learn a skill, and, in effect, decrease demand by the way you served the line.”  So it seemed logical.

   And, over the course of the next few weeks, I went to all these churches saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got this great idea!”  But what I found was, with love in their hearts, these men and women had become so comfortable in their routine that they didn’t want to change their routine.  Even if [changing] that routine could liberate people.  That’s when it was [really frustrating].  People were coming up with all these different reasons that they couldn’t do it. 

   [They’d say something like] “Well, the Health Department won’t let you.”

    [And I’d say] “Yeah, yeah they will.  In fact, here’s a copy of this law.  There’s a law [like this] in every state.  In fact, every state’s got one [a Good Samaritan law for donated food].”

   “Well, restaurants won’t do it.”

   “Yeah, I’ve got 30 signed up.  Are you kidding?  Restaurants would love to do it.  It’s great for them!” 

   We had a bunch of people then in DC...  It was the first wave of the Sanctuary Movement.  You had a lot of people coming from El Salvador and Nicaragua, Honduras, and here they were in hotels throwing away more food than their village might have seen in a month in one night.  So there were morale issues for staff, there was the tax deductions... There were all these different ways that it made sense; it was good business.

   But when I kept trying to push [for this idea], there were all these people who said, “We know you mean well... and you’re a nice guy, but you really can’t train the homeless.”

   And I’m like, “Man, did you just hear yourself?  Is that how far you’re willing to go to hold on to your routine?  That you’re willing to basically say that the only thing these men and women can do is stand outside in the rain and wait for ‘us good Christians’ to come and serve them food?” 

   It’s very encouraging for me to travel around and meet groups like this group here, Community Care Network.  Here’s groups that came together that deal with domestic violence, foster care, mental illness, that came together to share.  I mean, just Business Model 101... by sharing their back room stuff they save their money, which enables them to [better] use the money they do get, which you probably know is decreasing every year.  Because a lot of these groups, particularly with mental illness, dealt with federal money.

Grapevine: You’re saying the government seems to be asking for more results with less resources?

Egger: Totally, and it ain’t gonna get any different, man.  Unless we get totally, really serious about what we do.  And that’s kind of half of my message.  If you took the American non-profit, picked it up and moved it over and put it down... Now, of course, non-profits in America are universities, art galleries, hospitals, synagogues, mosques, DC Central Kitchen, your newspaper...  Nonetheless, if you took them out and put them separate, it would be the 7th biggest economy in the world.  It’s like, right after China.  Just the non-profit sector in America.  Yet, we have no say in the budget process in any town in America.  We have no newspaper, that’s dedicated really, even on the business page, dedicated to the in-depth analysis of what we do as an industry.  Ergo, you have the public giving billions of dollars, it’s usually about $250-260 billion a year, without really any access to information to enable them to determine who’s doing charity and who’s making [positive social] change.      

   And, to a certain extent, we don’t exercise, we don’t own our power.  We should be a potent political force in this country, in every town, in every state.  Yet, we fight each other for scraps, and that’s what keeps us, and the people we serve marginalized.

Grapevine: Do you think the generations that followed the Boomers have done a lot of wandering as well?

Egger: Well, you know.  Nobody wants to conform.  That sounds really great, but in a sense, that keeps us from unifying.  That sense of, well, we all have to be individuals.  But the reality of it is, Dr. King and Robert Kennedy died talking to us about unity.  Imagine where we could be if we [had come] together.  And all we’ve done since then is grow further apart.  We’ve got 2 million non-profits, and that’s not a bad thing, but you’ve got 2 million out there each doing their own thing, out there alone.

   I’ll give you a good example of how weird this has gotten.  The word “homeless” itself.  I don’t know who thought up that crazy word.  But it’s like “homeless” is almost a fuzzy, safe, word that keeps the public from a discussion about mental illness, domestic violence, wage, housing prices, prison, addiction.  Each one of these are big-ass issues that are not going to just go away.  You know, they demand real, sober, reflective conversation at a community level.  And to a certain extent, I worry that the non-profit sector, particularly those who work with homeless people, instead of saying, in effect, “Whoa whoa, time out!  That word doesn’t apply.  We don’t even respect it, we don’t acknowledge it,” we use it to raise money. 

   It’s weird that we need these things.  We become part of the problem sometimes. Instead of fighting for something better, we’re almost participating in this kind of almost, kind of culture lie.  This kind of “La la la, I don’t hear it, I don’t hear it.  They’ll go away if I just ignore it, [or write a check].” 

  One of the things that I try to do, is kind of get inside the heads of the opposition, and think, why do they think that way, or why do they say that?  It’s funny, because my Dad’s actually from around here, he’s from Ashtabula, and he said, “You know, I don’t remember homeless people.  We didn’t have homeless people in Ashtabula.”

   And I said, “Well Dad, actually you did.  What you had was a Sheriff that basically was empowered to take anyone to the county line and say, ‘Don’t come back.’”  And if that person did come back, he’d take him down to his friend, the judge’s house, and they went to the work farm for 30 days or 60 days, or however long.  But the point is, people empowered the Sheriff to make these things disappear, and a keep a society somewhat homogenous. 

   So it’s just interesting, that generation’s attitude.  They think, when they see someone on the street, they oftentimes just think “lazy.”  In fact, one of the things that I talk about when I speak around the country is just issues of hunger.  The reality is, that Americans don’t want to think that there’s hunger in America.  It’s easier, it’s safer to think that if you’re hungry, it’s your fault.  You’re lazy, you’re shiftless, you’re a bum.  It’s harder to even begin to think that there’s larger issues to deal with. 

   So they go to that safe place.  And that’s not right or wrong, good or bad, it’s just human nature to find a safe spot, you know, and protect it.  So the question is, how do you get in to that little fortress?

   I oftentimes challenge my colleagues to let go of these tactics they’ve tried for 40 years, whether it’s statistics, or wagging a moral finger, or whatever.  And just recognize that whatever it is isn’t working.  And it’s just like, that’s cool, let’s try something new.  Look, we’ve got to get in the gates. 

   I use the analogy of the Trojan Horse quite often.  You know, there’s this sense of, “the public is safe within their fortress,” and we’re outside.  We’re like the Greeks.  If you get down to brass tacks, the Greeks were right in that Paris came in the middle of the night, had dinner, and took another man’s wife with him in the middle of the night – gone.  So the Greeks were the aggrieved party, and they were right, but they were “right” outside the gates of Troy for 10 years.  It was a 10 year siege, and I’m really intrigued by that.  Because you can be right, but at the end of the day that doesn’t mean anything. 

   I think that we’ve become smug in our [constant] self-awareness about being right.  It’s like, I don’t care if we’re right.  I want change.  It doesn’t mean pandering, and it doesn’t necessarily mean subterfuge, but just recognizing that whatever we’re doing hasn’t gotten us into the larger public debate.  Without that, we’re outside the gate.  We are marginalized, and the people we serve stay down. 

Grapevine: Your webiste says your Culinary Job program has a 74% retention rate after 6 months.  Do any of your clients contact you after that and say, “Hey! I just made manager!” or anything like that?

Egger: Oh yeah.  In fact, you know the cool thing about it?  The times when I am probably at my lowest, when I’m just sitting in my office with my head down saying, “You know man, fuck this.”  Then I turn around, and somebody who I thought had disappeared, you know somebody who had gotten a job, and then, like 3 paychecks later, they were gone.  You know, and the boss is calling up saying “That person sucked!  I’m never gonna work with you again!” 

   And then, a year later, 2 years later, this guy shows up.  And it’s like, “Well, you know I really messed up.  In fact, I really went down.  I ended up back in prison, again.  But, you know what?   I made it through the program, and I knew I could do it.  I got myself straight in prison, and I’ve been working.  I just got my first apartment, my wife’s back...”  Shit like that, you know, it always happens when you need it the most.  It’s amazing how it happens. 

   But the Kitchen is a cool place, because people come back all the time.  DC’s a small town.  It’s not that big.  It’s very easy for people to drop in.  So we get a lot of graduates coming back who’ve got a new car they want to show off, or they got a raise, stuff like that.  

   I wouldn’t ever want to project the Kitchen as some kind of miracle program.  Frankly, a lot of it is, a lot of people don’t want to stay in food service.  But the important thing is that they keep moving on in some kind of direction.  That’s really what’s important.

Grapevine: Would you say there are elements of management training in your program?  For instance, when the chef is ordering food in the Fresh Start Catering program, does he or she involve the clients in the managerial duties?

Egger: Totally.  In fact, we have graduates on our Board of Directors.  Most of our staff, about 80% of our staff is [comprised of] graduates of our program.  So everywhere people turn they’re seeing other men and women [that they know] from the streets, or before they were on the streets, or from prison.  There’s a lot of peer [mentoring].  I’m really into that.  I’m fascinated by incentives.  You know, what’s an incentive for a person who’s been down [on their luck] to stand up?  What’s an incentive for a City Council person to vote against a draconian law?  What are incentives to move people?  How do we play to people’s better angels?

   I realized long ago, that the idea of me being another social worker who is “disappointed in someone” isn’t going to be the deciding factor for whether somebody stays or goes.  But if there was a sense of peer pressure, but also encouragement...  For example, we have a catering program, that employs all graduates, and is managed by a graduate.  I think for a lot of the men and women who are in Week 1 or 2, and it’s a 12 week program... I think a lot of them are thinking, “am I really going to be able to do this?”  I think that, not only can they see, because it’s in the same facility as Fresh Start, but the men and women of Fresh Start really go out and fish for them also.  You probably know a lot of people who go through Recovery find a great sense of motivation helping other people.

   That’s what I dig about the street newspapers also, there’s the same basic thing at work. 

Grapevine: Do you recruit vendors for Street Sense?  I know you’re on their Board.  Do you recruit vendors for them within your facilities? 

Egger: The gentleman who does the recruiting for us partners up with Street Sense and they go together.  So they do both at the same time.  By the way, another interesting thing about Street Sense... when they started, they didn’t do any ads.  So, we bought the first ad, and I got a bunch of my restaurant friends to buy ads.  But for the clients, the vendors, for them to become ad salesmen...

Grapevine: It gives them another opportunity, an echelon beyond just selling the paper?

Egger: Exactly.  And it gives them another incentive.  You and I both know that some people who sell the paper might sell a couple papers and then go and get high, but this might give them an incentive to come back.  If you’ve got different levels, it invites them to come back and try ad sales, or [being a] writer, or a variety of other different things.  But the ad sales can also help make the paper much more solvent.

But I’m also intrigued by it.  Because I think the vendors keep 70% of whatever they sell. 

Grapevine: Does Fresh Start Catering pay a living wage?

Egger: Everybody starts at $10 an hour.  Ten and benefits, to start.  So, most of the people at the catering end make about $11.50.  The thing about non-profits is that we have to practice what we preach.  Everybody starts at 10.  The drivers, maintenance, everybody. 

Grapevine: There are probably a lot of people working in shelters across the country who don’t make that.

Egger: I guarantee it, and that’s one of the reasons that shelters are fucked up.  You know, these people get paid maybe $7.50, and they’re oftentimes clients who got picked up.  They’re not prepared, emotionally or whatever, to deal with what they have to for the money.  And what you get is prison.  You get violence and intimidation and all that, not to mention shake-downs and all that other stuff that goes on.       

   Yeah, shelters are such a drag.  Even though I work closely with my colleagues in the National Alliance to End Homelessness on this, you know, getting everybody a home.  I mean, I like that idea, but I worry sometimes that giving someone who’s deep in addiction or psychosis their own apartment is just going to end up alienating landlords, neighbors, and just end up making their problems worse.  It’s an interesting debate though.

Grapevine: Your website says that your First Help Outreach program involves intake sessions.  Are those intake sessions occurring on the street, with trained social workers, or do they occur more privately?  Is it something along the lines of giving them a card and telling them to come by on Tuesday?

Egger: All of the above.  In other words, we go out with trucks, with food.  It’s similar to what I did the first time I went out, only we have trained social workers who go out with the truck.  The idea is, the incentive for men and women to come out is the breakfast, and then maybe [they] do an intake. 

Grapevine: A lot of non-profits struggle with “mission creep.”  Many non-profits end up diluting their missions in order to get the dollars to do their mission.  Is this what you’re talking about in terms of HUD (Housing and Urban Development) driving how services for individuals are structured?

Egger: Right.  Most towns, the federal government says, “you need a 10 year plan to end homelessness.”  So most towns say, “Okay, great, let’s do our 10 year plan.”  And they put together these things.  Like, in DC, we’re gonna build 6,000 units of housing for the homeless.  And it’s like, dude, where?   It sounds good, it looks good on paper, but there’s no intent to do it.  It’s just, “Well, that’s what the Fed wants, so that’s what we’ll do.”

   But my point is, if we’re going to write it... and I was on the Mayor’s Housing Task Force, and we wrote this thing saying we support the Mayor’s 10 year plan, etc.  But the reality is, particularly in DC, and particularly [with] the shelter providers:  It’s like, do you think somebody’s going to just ride into DC and just say “I’ll build 6,000 units?!” 

   We need to start thinking about our business differently.  If we’ve provided shelter for the past 20 years, maybe now is the time to potentially sell your shelter and start to build housing.  Maybe now you go into the housing business.

    For example, I could yell and scream all day because restaurants won’t hire felons.  Or, I could just say, well look.  While I work just as aggressively to get them [employers] to see the wisdom of hiring felons vs. waiting for them to conk someone in the head and go back to prison where it’s going to cost us $40,000 a year, I [also] just hire felons.  Then all I have to do is say, “Look at Fresh Start Catering.”  See, if I can hire felons, and I can pay a living wage, and I can make money, then look, you can too.  It’s not easy.  These are not “misunderstood angels.”  There’s real issues here, but it’s smart business, you know.  Let’s figure it out.

   There’s a great new saying, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”  I’m sure it may be an old saying, but I really dig it.  Because it’s saying, in effect, politicians aren’t separate from us.  We need to run for office, we need to organize politically.  We need to politicize our volunteers.  We need to say when people come into the Kitchen, “You know, this is great, thank you so much.  And volunteerism is great, and so is philanthropy.  But that will not solve the crises.”

Grapevine: Going back to the model for the DC Central Kitchen, do you feel it’s best used for establishing food service programs, catering programs, etc. when it’s being replicated, or do you think it can be used for retail models or other service models?

Egger: You know, it’s interesting.  Food service was just what I knew, so I just applied what I knew.  In theory, Goodwill has been doing this model for years by getting old stock, refurbishing it, and selling it.  But what I’m after with the Kitchen... it’s really cool, about 60 other cities do it, or some variation of it.  And we have this new thing called Campus Kitchens, which operates out of university and high-school level cafeterias.  But, we have tried to create a model that is truly replicable, in that, it doesn’t cost any money.   

   My thing is, sometimes you go to cities, and they’re like, “Look at our program, we want to get everybody in the country to do it.”  But then, it’s like, dude, this would cost millions of dollars to run, and you’re super lucky and you’ve got 8 foundations [supporting you].  This is you, you can’t replace this, you can’t move this.

   [But the other thing is that, in DC] we have a huge amount of other people’s money being spent, so there’s a lot of catering and food.  Nonetheless, everything that the Kitchen exists in, every town has.  What we’ve tried to do is only use things that exist everywhere.  You know: a kitchen that’s underutilized, men and women who want jobs, chefs who have jobs that will help teach, food that’s left over, volunteers who want to make things happen.  All this stuff exists everywhere.  So, all we’ve done is take things that usually you can find anywhere and rearrange them. 

   So, from the function of a non-profit, we’ve tried to create something that’s easy to duplicate.  But, at the next level up, we’re trying to say to society, “Hey look, you all really dig this,” and I discovered very early on that what we did touch a very interesting nerve.  I didn’t really think about it, we just made it up, but everywhere we went, people were [saying], “Oh my God!  That’s so cool, you’re taking food that was thrown away, and you’re teaching people!”  People really dug it. 

   If we can do this with leftover food, and people our society undervalues, what can we do with the amount of money we’re spending?  What can we do with your generation?  My generation is compelling yours to do community service in high school.  91% of college freshmen have done community service.  Man, what could we do with those brains?  What can we do with the Boomers?  They’re retiring, man, and they’re one of the most educated generations on the history of the planet. 

Grapevine: There are articles that have said that the Boomer generation will be the most active retirees in history.  From what I’ve read, they’re going to make the current AARP look like a bridge club. 

Egger: Right, and is the non-profit sector ready for it?  Is the non-profit sector, based on the current way it does its business, ready to adapt to meet the hours the Boomers will throw at them?

   And that’s my point, the world’s changing fast here.  I mean, look, you’ve got a bunch of people who are aging out who are not going to be happy chopping vegetables for five years.  They’re going to want something more. 

   You’ve got a generation of young people who are not going to give money the same way that their parents did.  With your generation, your time is your philanthropy.  You want your life and your work to be kind of wrapped together. 

   My generation [was more compartmentalized].  We worked here, we prayed here, we did our non-profit work.  We sent checks “over there,” you know.  Your generation isn’t going to do it that way.  

   Our economy’s going global.  This town [Cleveland] watched blue collar jobs fly away.  We’re about to watch white collar jobs split.  The world’s really changing in a big way. 

   So I think in the non-profit world, we’re kind of intellectually lazy.  We kind of think it’s always been this way, that it’s charity, that there will always be United Ways, there’ll always be food banks.  We need to recognize that the world’s changing fast, and we need to adapt with it. Because Boomers will not want to just come down, Monday through Friday, 9-5.  They’re going to have a very different lifestyle.  So, I’m hoping that I can convey, to a lot of the non-profits I meet, that you change or you die.       

Grapevine: Are there any plans for future programs along the same model, but directed towards computer repair, or other skilled labor like cosmetology, etc. 

Egger: You know, I’m really into revenue-generating non-profits.  I think social entrepreneurship is cool.  Because on one level, it does make you independent, to a certain extent.  Plus, you employ people, and that’s all good. 

   But there are two things that really fascinate me.  Every time someone buys our catering, at the end of the night, when the host or hostess says, “Guess what?  The men and women who just served you are from the DC Central Kitchen Fresh Start Catering [program].  Wasn’t it great?”  People are like, “You’re kidding me.  That was a felon, that was a mentally ill person, that was an addict?  I didn’t know.” 

   It’s like, Boo-ya!  Gotcha!  That’s what I’m after.  What I’m really after is that sense that you just had a great dinner, and great service, and that person got paid $11 bucks an hour, plus benefits!  That’s so great.  Yes, that’s Capitalism 2.0, that’s the future. 

   It’s that sense of, well, you could say “This is how capitalism is supposed to work.”  When the consumer drives the system, not the system driving the consumer.  Gandhi, King, Cesar Chavez... Their brush with genius was saying to poor people, “If you don’t buy salt, if you don’t ride the bus, if you don’t buy grapes, their system stops.  Their power is an illusion.  It’s the way you spend your pennies.”

   And it’s fascinating because, if I may, all three men were devout men.  All three were eloquent speakers about non-violence.  Yet, at the end of the day, they used the boycott, economic violence, if you will.  A punishing act to make their point. 

   But I was intrigued by the notion of, once they showed people the power of dimes, pennies, rupees, if they could turn that.  If they could say, in effect, “Okay, now that you know...  Instead of a boycott, we’re going to now go with a buy-cott.  We’re going to now create a rewarding power.  We’re going to drive and say, ‘you want my pennies?  I want good food, I want good service, I want you to pay people [well].  And if you don’t, that’s cool, it’s capitalism, but I’m not going to give you a dime.’”

   Ultimately what we’ve spent is 40 years, in which, at the end of the year, you write a little extra check, and try to offset the damage that our society does.  It doesn’t work that way.  It will never work.  That’s been philanthropy, the whole Carnegie model.  If I made a bunch of money in my life, at the end of my life, I give it back and try to offset the damage that I did making a bunch of money in my life.  It’ll never work.  So the question then becomes, how can you make philanthropy the way you spend your money every single day?  That’s what I hope is the power of these revenue-generators. 

Grapevine: Instead of one drop in a bucket a year, many drops?

Egger: Right.  The answer is right in front of us.  It’s the way you spend your money every day.          

   But, I want to go back to this other thing you said.  Because there’s an amazing program in Eugene, OR.  I think it’s at the St. Vincent de Paul Center there.  The guy who runs it is turning trash into gold.  The American trash system is staggering.  It’s like, it’s cheaper to buy a new one of these (points to recorder), than it is to get it repaired.  So people throw it away.  But there might be one little thing in there, that at a light industries place, somebody in prison, whatever, could open it up, take it out, and sell it back to Motorola. 

   This guy does stuff like buying old beds from hospitals, he refurbishes them, and then sells them in Pakistan and India.  This guy is just a madman for, basically, light industry.  People come into the Kitchen and tell me they want to open a catering business.  And I tell them that they really don’t.  It’s a hard business.  It’s what I’ve done all my life, I know how to do it.  But [I tell them] there’s other ways in which you can make money and in which you can employ people. 

Grapevine: You spoke about people power before.  What about using this model to operate lower-cost housing, or even a hotel for tourists in DC?                             

Egger: Yeah.  The sky’s the limit.  Why not do anything?  For example, I’m a real proponent, and it doesn’t make me popular in DC, but the big shelter that we work in is run by the residents, and I just think that model isn’t delivering at the level it should.  I proposed many  ways that we could create a different kind of model.  And I’ve also suggested, sell this piece of junk building, and reinvest in kind of a campus setting in a different neighborhood. 

   But one of the things we talked about is, you oftentimes think of shelter, and you think- front door on the street.  But what if you had an eight-story building, and the first two stories were retail that served the neighborhood?  What if you employed men and women, and generated revenue for the business?  That way, the locals who [say] “I don’t want a shelter,” can be [answered with] “Yeah, but do you want a dry cleaner?  Do you want carry-out?  Do you want fresh fruits and vegetables?  Do you want day care?  We’ll provide all that, and we’ll give people an opportunity to work and we’ll generate revenue.”  Then it becomes that you’re almost a partner with the neighborhood.    

   What I hope I can be part of is this sort of Renaissance of young people coming in and saying, “Well, I went to business school, I went to medical school, or I went to journalism school, and I’ve got a crazy new idea.  I’ve never seen it before, but why don’t we do a housing development and....?”’ 

   I also want to say to them, “In your organization and your community, are you really open to the younger people who are on your staff?  Are you listening to them?  Are you giving them a shot to try something new, or are you, like the people that I met when I first went out to volunteer, are you still locked into your way of thinking?  Are you seeing new ideas when they’re right in front of you?” 

   I mean, I never would have done this.  I would have opened the greatest nightclub in the world.  That was my great dream.  I wouldn’t have done this, had those men and women not said, “no.”  All I wanted to do was pass on an idea, and they wouldn’t do it.  And that rigidity, that just pissed me off so much, that I’d hate to see it happen again.  It’s been an interesting journey, [though], a really wild journey [of] 17 years.

   I think its important to say to the sector, “Look unless something changes, I’ll run the Kitchen the rest of my life.”  Now, I don’t mind that.  I like what I do, but I’m not going to go down without a fight.  There’s an equal chance that if we get our act together, we can decrease the demand for programs like the Kitchen.  That’s the only place I want to be.

Grapevine:   What is the Non-Profit Congress?  Who’s eligible to participate, and what will its impact be?

Egger: Well, [there’s a website:] nonprofitcongress.org [for more information.] But, the idea is, we’re bringing delegates from all 50 states to Washington, and it’s representative of all levels of the non-profits.  But, if I may, there’s a keen interest to bring in the 80% of the sector that is just Mom-and-Pops, under $500,000 a year budgets. [They have] no voice, no say, they’re out there on their own, barely making it. 

Grapevine: Is this what you’re talking about with consolidating, in terms of the non-profit sector being more powerful than it realizes?  Are you trying to get everyone together on the same page, to come together for common cause?

Egger: This is the first stage.  It almost kicks open the door of saying, “If you’re ready to go there, I am too.  Because whatever we’re doing now, I love it.  It’s a glorious expression of who we are as a country, a culture, and it is beyond measure how generous the American public is.”  But, I personally think that unless something changes in a big way, the American public is going to get frustrated, the government’s going to abdicate more of its responsibility, we’re only going to become weaker, and the people we serve more marginalized.  That’s a no-go for me.

   So, my thing is, come on, let’s try something really new.  Let’s try a new name.  Let’s ditch “non-profit”  I mean, what a suck-ass name.  I mean, [the Kitchen] produces great profit.  I love the profit I produce.  Our sector makes every city totally livable.  We’re the faith community, we’re the arts, we care for people at the end of their life and at the beginning of their life.  Anything good, we do.  We should be crazy proud of what we do.

   And my thing is, we have a lot of things in common.  One of the most important things that all non-profits have in common now, is Senator Charles Grassley.  He’s on the Senate Finance Committee, and he regulates us without our say; and that’s wrong.  We need to be organized, and we need to march down to every newspaper in town, including the Plain Dealer. [We need to] say to the new publisher, “Dude, the non-profit sector is 1/10 of the local economy in Cleveland.  It’s 1/10th of the workforce.” 

   Right now, most states have a state association of non-profits.  But most of those state associations speak about the non-profit sector, not for it.  I’m hoping what this will do is usher in an age in which these state associations become a little more aggressive, and become [better] advocates for the non-profits in the state. 

   We should have a say in the budget process in every city and every state.  We should be actively involved in that.  Should we be forwarding candidates for office?  Why not?  Should we be running ourselves?  Damn straight.

   So, I’m hoping the Non Profit Congress will begin that conversation.  But for me, one of the biggest prizes is the 2008 election.  It’s the first election in 50 some years where there’s no incumbent Vice President or President running.  It’s totally a buyer’s market.  My big goal is that we have non-profit primary debates on C-Span, where the non-profit sector says to the candidates, “There’s 2 million of us.  Give us a vision.  What’s the role of government?”

   I’m hoping a smart candidate will look at that sector and say, “Whoa.  I’ve got 80 million Baby Boomers who better damn well produce something, because we, our economy, can’t afford them just consuming.  They have to produce something.  But if I can get 80 million Boomers to plan to use their retirement to serve, somehow...  We’ve got a generation of university students who are surging in their desires to make the world a better place.  We’re spending 1/10th of our income with 2 million groups out there.  Wow, that’s a lot to work with.  That’s a lot of power.”

   Just as John Kennedy looked out and said, “Ask not...”   I think a smart candidate would be really wise to say to the American people, “Wow, let’s do this.  It’s amazing what we have to work with, and here’s my vision.”  A smart candidate who looked at the sector and said, “Join me” would find a tremendous asset.  They would have a tremendous force behind him or her. 

   That’s what I want the sector to see [in itself], and for a candidate to recognize.  I think this is Big League ball.  It’s your future, it’s mine.  Unless Americans start getting their act together really quick, and start working together, we’re going to wake up and see the world has moved to China or Brazil, or wherever.  We’re going to be has-beens.

   I don’t want to end the interview on this kind of jingoistic note, but we have this attitude in this country that “Well, we’re Americans, it’ll always be this way.”  It won’t. 

   I think that we are already an amazing force in this world, but I think we could really be [so much more.] The way we treat our elderly, the way we treat our kids, the way we treat our mentally ill, there’s just a million ways that we could be an amazing force for good in this world.  We’ll see what happens, but that’s my bag, and that’s why I’m doing all this.  So, thank you very much for listening.

Grapevine: Thank you very much for speaking with us.  

Copyright Homeless Grapevine, Cleveland Ohio Issue 78 October 2006