Susan Kirk is retiring from her position as executive director of Bethesda Cares on Nov. 15. Credit: ANDREW SCHOTZ

Susan Kirk wasn’t looking to leave her job leading Bethesda Cares. But, for the sake of receiving Social Security, she had to set a retirement date. She picked Nov. 15.

Kirk has been with Bethesda Cares, a nonprofit community outreach program for the homeless, since the nonprofit organization began in 1988. She was a volunteer first. She has been the executive director for the last 21 years.

Kirk said she is proud of the comprehensive work of Bethesda Cares, finding people who have been overlooked and shepherding them into situations in which they have a steady home.

She said Bethesda Cares offers “wraparound services”—helping people visit an apartment, sign paperwork, open a bank account, figure out public transportation, get medication. “Everything to rebuild your life,” Kirk said.

The agency’s board of directors is searching for Kirk’s replacement. Board Chairwoman Kathy Petitt said “a large number of applicants” was interested; interviews are underway.

The board hopes to have a new executive director by Oct. 31, so Kirk can work a little with her replacement before she leaves.

Advertisement

Kirk said it takes time for Bethesda Cares, which operates out of a drop-in center on Woodmont Avenue, to build relationships, getting downtrodden people to trust the process and accept help.

Bethesda Cares helps that rapport in various ways. It serves hot meals hosted by local churches. It offers a free “clothing closet.” There are psychiatric services and prescription assistance.

Kirk said the agency helps people get cellphones and gives them a mailing address.

Advertisement

The Rev. Bob Perry, who served on the board for about 20 years until he left in 2013, credited Kirk with strengthening and expanding Bethesda Cares. He said it used to be a small church-oriented organization, with volunteer leaders, a part-time director and a small budget.

Now, the organization is known throughout the county and state for its work, he said.

Bethesda Cares has 12 employees and about 600 volunteers, Kirk said.

Advertisement

Perry, who was a pastor at North Chevy Chase Christian Church, said Kirk’s “concern, compassion and understanding of issues” are exemplary.

“She planted a lot of seeds,” Petitt said.

In conjunction with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Bethesda Cares is trying to help end chronic homelessness locally by the end of the year. Kirk thinks March of 2018 might be a more realistic goal.

Advertisement

“Chronic” is defined as being homeless, with a disability, at least four times in a year or for at least one year continuously. A minority of the area’s homeless people fit that definition. Most people find a home within a month after losing their previous home, she said.

Montgomery County was one of four jurisdictions nationwide to accomplish a goal of ending homelessness among veterans by 2016.

Through a contract, Bethesda Cares is now working to end homelessness in parts of Silver Spring, too.

Advertisement

Kirk wanted to be around when chronic homelessness ends in the county, but she doesn’t mind letting a new executive director take over for the final stretch.

She is not certain what she will do next. She described retirement as “holding my nose and jumping into a black abyss.”

Kirk will get together with a friend from high school in Massachusetts.

Advertisement

More yoga is possible, she said, and it might be time to break out the bicycle in her kitchen.