Homeless youth are finding community at a downtown drop-in center
Every Monday, 45 to 60 homeless youth find refuge at a downtown church. Just over a year ago, First Congregational United Church of Christ, Sasha Bruce Youthwork and the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District (BID) came together to open a drop-in center where homeless youth can stay for a few hours, receive necessities, and connect with both resources and peers.
“It’s been amazing to see how people embrace this as their home,” said the Rev. James Ross from First Church.
The church, located at 945 G St NW, reached out to the Downtown BID when they noticed an increase in the number of homeless people in the area. They knew the nearby library, which had been an unofficial center for people to go to, was closing for renovations, and they wanted to help ensure people could access services they needed.
Members of the Downtown BID and First Church determined that unhoused youth were the most in need, which led them to contact Sasha Bruce Youthwork, an organization whose mission is to improve the lives of runaway, homeless, abused, and neglected youth and their families. “Sasha Bruce had recently launched a drop-in center, which is full-time, and that was the model that we decided we would use,” Ross said.
Each organization brought its own set of resources to the table. The church had space, funds, and willing volunteers; Sasha Bruce had expertise in working with homeless youth; and the Downtown BID had access to more funds.
Once a week, food, board games, movies, and books are made available at the center for the youth to enjoy. The activities help build community, both among the youth and between youth and staff. Each Monday, they go through 35 pizzas, as well a fruit and water.
“If you have teenagers, they eat you out of house and home. And [these teenagers] don’t have a house and home to eat out of,” Pam Lieber, the program manager at the drop-in center, said.
Snack packs are provided for the youth to take with them when they leave. First Church has also hosted a Thanksgiving dinner and held a scarf, hat, and glove drives for the program participants.
Sasha Bruce also combs the streets to connect with young people who do not attend the program. An outreach van, run by Mia DeJesús-Martin, is packed with snacks, condoms, water, and other supplies. They also offer free HIV testing.
“Outreach is about meeting basic needs in the moment and then encouraging and making those referrals for young people to access later down the line,” Sasha Bruce employee Lorie Davidson told Street Sense.
Lieber said many members of the public have misconceptions about homeless youth. People may see them being loud and may view them as disrespectful and lazy. “If you spend time getting to know them, they’re really smart young people,” Lieber said. As she spoke, TreVell, a young man who has been attending the drop-in center for over a year, came up and gave her a hug goodbye.
TreVell was unaware of the drop-in center until one day while leaving work he encountered someone passing out flyers about it. He came to visit and the staff explained that this was a safe place to get necessities and feel at home. At the time he did not have anywhere like that.
The center has helped TreVell connect with people his age in similar situations. “There was a lot of people that I knew on the outside, before I even knew that … they were in the same situation I was,” he said.
The center and its resources also helped TreVell obtain housing. He has been in a stable housing situation for almost a year.
“There is help. I was in the situation where it was me for myself. I was just providing for myself,” he said. During that time in his life, TreVell slept in laundromats or airports, taking his clothes to work with him in a duffel bag. When he first found out about the drop-in center, he would come just to be able to get some peaceful sleep. In most public places, he had to remain alert and be attentive to his surroundings. Here, he could finally rest.
“The center provided me with a safe environment where I didn’t have to worry about any of that,” TreVell said. “The more people who know about the drop-in center, the better.”
Staff members have learned a lot since the center opened. Lieber was surprised by the depth of the need for mental health services among young people. “Chronic mental health issues amongst the older homeless population is something that’s pretty common and you expect it,” she said. “But I wasn’t expecting that from our younger kids, and yet that’s something we see on a regular basis.”
Additionally, staff have learned what is truly important to the youth. “Beyond the games, beyond the movies, giving people a sense that there’s a place where they belong, reminding people that someone cares about them, I think that’s what’s most important,” Rev. Ross said. “What has been affirmed for me is that young people are young people. They want the same things that other young people want. They want safety, security, and somebody that cares about them.”
Davidson agreed. According to her, it is important that young people know, “even if I mess up, they care about me, even if I mess up a second time, they still care about me — they’re not going to give up on me.”
Youth and staff members alike acknowledged that there is always more to be done. “One thing that is a challenge is that there are so many young people who are in need of access to housing,” Davidson said. The District of Columbia Fiscal Year 2018 Winter Plan states that there will be 28 beds available in the District of Columbia for unaccompanied minors, which is an increase of six beds since last year. The Winter Plan notes that using an average three-week length of stay, the beds for unaccompanied minors will provide shelter for approximately 390 youth over the course of a year. The mayor’s plan to end youth homelessness by 2022, released in May, calls for an increase in the number of beds for young people ages 18-24, as well as additional youth-specific resources for programs such as rapid re-housing, which provides short-term rental assistance and services with different levels of assistance. There will be 52 shelter beds, 152 transitional housing beds, 72 rapid re-housing beds, and 37 permanent supportive housing beds.
Despite these added resources, there is still a need. “When we close our doors each night, there are kids that don’t have any place to be,” Lieber said.