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Oprah Gave This D.C. Homeless Nonprofit A Surprise $1 Million Check. Now What?

N St. Village Director Schroeder Stribling with Oprah Winfrey after receiving an unexpected $1 million donation to the nonprofit. CREDIT: N STREET VILLAGE
N St. Village Director Schroeder Stribling with Oprah Winfrey after receiving an unexpected $1 million donation to the nonprofit. CREDIT: N STREET VILLAGE

ThinkProgress has dedicated a portion of our coverage on Wednesday, June 29th to reporting on the state of homelessness in Washington, D.C. This story is part of that series.

N Street Village knew 2016 was going to bring financial change to the quickly-expanding nonprofit. But they weren’t imagining it would involve a surprise donation from Oprah Winfrey.

With five locations, N Street Village is easily Washington, D.C.’s largest — and oldest — homeless housing program for women. The nonprofit offers a spectrum of short- and long-term housing solutions, supplemented with medical care, social resources, and meals — to more than a thousand women every year. But like any grant-funded organization, N Street Village is used to working on a tight budget, and 2016 demanded loftier financial needs than usual.

She didn’t even have to write a check, just acknowledging we exist is a big deal.

N Street Village started the year by helping D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser craft a detailed, expansive new plan to build seven new homeless shelters across the city — a plan still contested by city councilmembers and housing advocates alike.

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But the organization’s task — leading the only female-only shelter of the seven — was met with applause, along with an earlier opening date. This would be the first time the organization will run emergency shelter space, rather than more permanent housing facilities. On top of that, the nonprofit was juggling the upkeep of their four other aging facilities, and was strategizing how to purchase the two buildings they still lease.

Then Winfrey gave them $1 million.

It’s rare for a social service nonprofit to receive such a substantial donation out of the blue. The organization depends on “hundreds of little Oprahs” — small grants and donations — in a typical year, N Street Village director Schroeder Stribling told ThinkProgress. Caught off-guard, N Street Village is now facing a welcome question: What to do with a surprise $1 million?

“It was so unexpected. I’ve managed not to cry publicly this much before,” said Stribling, recalling the luncheon where Winfrey announced her hefty contribution. “But I couldn’t help it. She really believes in what we’re doing and where we’re going.”

Sterling had invited Winfrey to N Street Village’s annual “empowerment luncheon” on a whim, and didn’t expect her to actually show up. But she signed up to be the keynote speaker at the June event. After listening to stories by women whose lives have been propelled forward by N Street’s housing and addiction recovery programs, Winfrey came to the stage.

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“In life, we all want to know: Do you hear me? Do you see me? Everyone who works at N Street Village understands that principle,” she said, brandishing a check. “They know that every woman who comes through those doors wants to be seen, heard, and to know that her life matters.”http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2016/02/12/3749228/dc-homeless-plan/That’s exactly what N Street Village has been fighting for since the early 1970s. The organization’s founders built the network to aid what they saw as the most under-served population of the homeless: women.

It grew from a small outreach organization to a multi-faceted network of housing programs across the city by the mid-90s — and now welcomes women looking for a wide range of housing options on different time frames. The nonprofit has dozens of “supported housing” options for people who need a safe place to live, but are also looking for help finding a job, battling a toxic addiction, or getting back on their feet after being incarcerated.

“[Winfrey] clearly listened to the women who spoke at the luncheon and did her research,” said Stribling.

With a $10 million operating budget to feed, N Street Village won’t have a hard time using Winfrey’s donation. But where exactly will it go? Stribling said the check will primarily help renovate their aging buildings and feed the organization’s expanding programs. Instead of squirreling the funds away for future projects, N Street Village will put the donation directly into this year’s budget pot.

Her biggest hope, however, is for Winfrey’s support to inspire more smaller grants as the news spreads. Just having Winfrey’s name attached to the organization is enough to encourage a new wave of donations and general awareness from people who’ve never heard of N Street Village, both in and outside of the District.

“She didn’t even have to write a check, just acknowledging we exist is a big deal,” said Stribling. “She wants to make sure we’re here today and we’re here tomorrow. It’s very special.”