Operation Ernie’s Plate: Maintaining a Legacy

“Don’t Judge, Please Help,” reads the hashtag present on Eric Hawkins’ Facebook and Twitter feed.

The hashtag accompanies various pictures of supplies and the homeless families and veterans he’s helped through his non-profit organization, Operation Ernie’s Plate.

The inspiration for Operation Ernie’s Plate came long before its founding in 2017.

“My parents put 10-20 kids through college, just to give back,” said Hawkins. His mother, a physical education teacher in Washington, D.C. for over 50 years, and his father, a chief administrator for policy and administration at the Department of Transportation, instilled service-oriented values in him at a young age.

“We followed my mother all around D.C. during the summers teaching tennis; you name it…working, volunteering, feeding homeless folks,” he said.

Years later, Eric was working successfully in corporate America with a Berkshire Hathaway company when his parents fell ill with cancer.

“For two years, they fought together. Side by side,” said Hawkins. In those two years, Hawkins, his wife, and children cared for his parents with the assistance of a nurse. After both of his parents passed away in 2017, Hawkins quit his job. “I realized that corporate America, though I was making six figures annually, just—this may sound crazy, but money didn’t matter to me anymore,” he explained.

“Life didn’t have any meaning after that, and I wanted to give back… And I walked out on faith,” With two children through college and a college-bound daughter, Hawkins and his wife started their non-profit organization Operation Ernie’s plate in honor of his father, Ernest Hawkins Sr.

Today, only two years since starting Operation Ernie’s Plate, the couple runs the organization from their home. Hawkins stated that partnerships with other organizations, volunteers, and being involved in the community drive the growth of Ernie’s Plate.

Referrals play a significant role in building the Operation Ernie’s Plate network. Community members notify the Hawkins of churches like Emmanuel United Methodist Church and Transformation Christian Ministries that can benefit from a partnership with Operation Ernie’s Plate. They let people know where they will be through social media and volunteers meet them there. They also partner with organizations such as the United Black Fund, which helps the Southeast D.C. community every month.

“Some days we just go out, just to drive around,” said Hawkins. The Hawkins family will frequent areas including the K street bridge in Georgetown, Langley Park, Maryland, and the Community for Creative Non-Violence Homeless Shelter. Hawkins explained that people want your trust after seeing that you keep coming back.

Charles, a young man that has been around second street shelter on and off for the past five or six months, stated that he sees the Hawkins regularly. “Once or twice a month…with the same stuff—food and a hygiene pack.”  

“Sometimes in life, people just want you to listen to them…so we listen, and we learn, and we talk to them, and we let them know that we are concerned and we do care,” said Hawkins.

The assistance provided by Operation Ernie’s Plate ranges from giving food and clothes to helping the homeless obtain housing. Hawkins explained that the organization has partnered with the Southern Maryland Center to help individuals with job training and getting benefits. Ernie’s Plate has also referred individuals in need of caseworkers to Pathways to Housing and Community Connections, organizations located in Washington, D.C.

While Operation Ernie’s Plate sees the people they help through the process of getting housing, check-ins following secured housing is uncommon. “The homeless population is so advanced out here,” explained Eric, “We usually just follow up with them until their situations change or get better.”

The United States Interagency Council of Homelessness estimated that over 6,000 people were homeless on a given night. According to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, D.C. has a lot of short-term and medium-term solutions that aim to move residents out of shelters as soon as possible. Subsidized housing provides relief, but residents are sometimes forced back into homelessness due to inability to pay the rent down the line.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s proposed budget for 2020 includes $8.8 million for Permanent Housing Units for homeless individuals in efforts to tackle the issue with homelessness long-term. Currently, individuals in D.C. typically jump from shelter to shelter. The number of homeless individuals in D.C. and their unstable living situations making it harder for Ernie’s plate to maintain further contact.  

Though the Hawkins’ receive a lot of donations and are in the process of getting grants, “the biggest obstacle is not having enough money to give more,” said Eric.

Though further growth of the organization is a goal, Hawkins stated, “You gotta crawl before you can walk.” In just two years working out of their home, the crawl for Operation Ernie’s Plate has helped thousands. Last Thanksgiving alone, Operation Ernie’s Plate fed over a thousand homeless people.

Eric explained that in these past two years, the most straightforward successes had been the biggest successes. “If we could only feed one person, then we’re successful—because we were able to give them a helping hand.”