Rhonda Whitaker, empathetic advocate for the unhoused community, dies at 55

The coalition of advocates striving to end homelessness in Washington D.C. lost a tireless voice this spring, one that left a legacy of resiliency and compassion on her community. Rhonda Whitaker died in a truck collision April 24 at Hains Point in East Potomac Park. She was 55.

Friends and family members remember Whitaker as a loving community member whose experience in homelessness translated to a passion for advocacy and outreach with Miriam’s Kitchen, calling for more support for the homeless community and permanent housing in hopes of a better future.

Whitaker was on a morning walk with her friend and fellow advocate Waldon Adams, when a pickup truck driver struck the two pedestrians, killing them both. The driver fled the scene before being later found by U.S. Park Police, which declined to share details on the investigation into the incident. 

Whitaker grew up as the youngest of three children in Fort Dupont, eventually raising two children of her own — Eric and Gregg. Taj Wingate, Whitaker’s cousin, said that throughout her life, Whitaker could always “bounce back” from tough times and keep a positive attitude, despite the conditions she endured while spending more than a decade in homelessness. Whitaker spent her time as an advocate, urging others to break out of homelessness and learn about government programs that connect them to housing, Wingate said.

“The homelessness, it was just a driver and a motivation behind her to say, ‘If I did it, you can too,’” she said. “She shared her story as a testimony to others to help others know that there is help out here.”

Wingate said Whitaker was “the life of the party” who always loved to shop and enjoyed jumping double-dutch and throwing dance parties when she was younger. She said Whitaker would take her and other cousins to the circus when the Ringling Brothers would come to D.C. Whitaker also remembered her cousin as a “protector” who looked out for her family members and supported anyone in need of help. Even while she struggled through homelessness later in life, Whitaker would provide gifts for Wingate’s children, including a Redskins jersey and smaller gifts like lip gloss and toys.

Wingate said she never saw Whitaker, who used to live under the Florida Avenue bridge near Gallaudet University, out on the street while she was homeless. Instead, she only saw Whitaker at settings like family dinners, showers, or to pick up feminine products. 

“I never saw her down,” she said. “I never saw her at a low point. It was always positive”

But Whitaker faced plenty of challenges in the years surrounding her homelessness experience, which took a toll on family and personal life.

Whitaker tragically lost her brother Greg in 1995 when he was fatally stabbed at a McDonald’s restaurant in Northeast D.C. – an unexpected tragedy that Whitaker struggled to cope with while still supporting her mother, Wingate said. She said she believes Whitaker’s grief played a role in her path into homelessness.

Whitaker also had to confront the premature birth of her younger son Gregg in 2005, struggling with the emotional toll of visiting him while she continued to live through homelessness following his preterm birth. Wingate’s mother cared for Gregg at her residence, serving as an emergency foster parent during his upbringing. But Wingate said after time passed, Whitaker grew closer with Gregg and realized their similarities — their shared love of shopping and having fun, and the same sense of humor. 

Wingate said Whitaker’s children were her motivation to turn her life around and break out of homelessness later in her life.

“It was her children that motivated her to do better and want to live and live right, and get her life back on track and keep it on track,” Wingate said. “It was her children that motivated her first and then her family. And she made sure that that was her main focus. And she kept it her focus.”

Whitaker spent the last five years as a dedicated participant with Miriam’s Kitchen. She first visited the site in 2016 for meals and to help with personal documents while continuing to live through homelessness. Whitaker launched her career in advocacy at Miriam’s in 2018 when she joined the organization’s speaker’s bureau — a community group that offers training in public speaking for advocacy and public testimony, like in D.C. Council hearings.

Ashley Gorczyca, an advocacy specialist at Miriam’s Kitchen, said Whitaker demonstrated a strong passion for permanent supportive housing and case management services when she first joined the bureau. Gorczyca said that Whitaker had no public speaking experience at the time, but brought passion and natural talent. 

“I just remember sitting there, listening to her, and I’m like, ‘There is no way she’s never done this before,’” Gorczyca said. “So she just seemed like she’s done this time and time again, but she was speaking her truth. And she was just so passionate about wanting to end homelessness.” 

Gorczyca said Whitaker was the only woman to serve on the bureau for much of her time there, and she demonstrated empathy and compassion while listening intently to the other speakers who were training.

“She was very empathetic when people were sharing their story, she’d listen, and that’s the thing — you knew she was listening and not just passive but she would really look at you and touch you or validate someone’s experience,” Gorczyca said. “She was so great about that and really making people feel welcome in the group.”

Whitaker broke out of homelessness in 2019, sharing her life story with the bureau and encouraging others that they could find housing too. She enrolled in the University of the District of Columbia with plans of becoming “the best dang case manager that you’ve ever seen” at Miriam’s after securing her social work degree, Gorczyca said. Whitaker passed away before she could graduate. 

“Rhonda was a lovely, deeply caring person about her community — super passionate about wanting to end homelessness and using her experiences to help them in any way that she could,” Gorczyca said. “She was just a fierce woman in all that she did.”

Gorczyca recalls Whitaker’s love for the outdoors, walking, and dancing and encouraging others to do the same at her church — Purity Pentacostal Deliverance Center Ministries. Gorczyca said she remembers Whitaker’s care and concern for her family and unhoused neighbors — the people whom she worked tirelessly for to supply a better way of life through calls for change. 

“She loved people,” she said. “She was just an amazing person. She loved interacting with people, and she just would come from a place of this deep care for her neighbors. She didn’t think that they should be homeless, and so she would just talk to them. And she would want people to feel like you are cared about.”

Reginald Black, a Street Sense Media vendor and the advocacy director at the People for Fairness Coalition, a nonprofit working to end homelessness, said he was impressed seeing Whitaker speak for the first time during an advocacy event at Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s office. There, Whitaker discussed female empowerment and ensuring a functional rapid rehousing process, an avenue that helped her secure housing after homelessness. He said Whitaker was a “stark advocate” for permanent supportive housing and proper city investments to foster equitable housing access in D.C. 

“When it became her time to speak, you could tell she was very articulate and she possessed a certain aura about how she should be treated as who she was and how other women like herself should be treated,” he said.

Black said too many unhoused residents are underrepresented due to a lack of female advocates in the local community. To continue Whitaker’s legacy, Black said he will help other women access public speaking spaces. He said he will remember Whitaker as someone with a story who shared her experience for the benefit of others and someone who would never fail to emphasize the dignity and humanity of those who are unhoused.

“Homelessness is just a situation — it’s not who you are, it’s not what you’re defined by, and those are the types of things she would say,” Black said. “She would really pound the pavement on that point and make sure that people are recognized as human, that they have dignity and deserve respect.” 

Issues |Community|Death

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