Safe haven

Cheryl K. Barnes, left, Sharon Hart, center, and Schroeder Stribling, executive director of N Street Village. Photo by Lacey Johnson
Cheryl K. Barnes, left, Sharon Hart, center, and Schroeder Stribling, executive director of N Street Village.
Photo by Lacey Johnson

When it came time for Cheryl K. Barnes to leave the hospital after a suicide attempt that followed years of drug abuse and homelessness, she realized she had nowhere to turn. A hospital worker guided her to N Street Village, an all-encompassing safe haven for homeless women located at 14th and N Streets in the District.

Barnes is now one of N Street Village’s success stories. She hasn’t used drugs for 24 years, runs arts and crafts programs and leads tours at N Street and currently lives in Eden Place, one of 51 units of affordable housing the village offers.

For 40 years, the interfaith community of Washington, D.C., has made it a priority to help women like Barnes by not only providing them with a place to sleep and a warm meal but by offering an array of services, allowing the women to regain their self-esteem, improve their health and obtain skills needed to make it in today’s world. In January 2013, 610,000 people were homeless on any given night, according to the latest report from the U.S.
Department of Housing and Urban Development.

It all began in the 1970s when Pastor John Steinbruck of Luther Place Memorial Church at 1226 Vermont Ave., N.W., threw some mattresses down in the aisles of his sanctuary in an attempt to ease the blight of homelessness plaguing the area.

Joseph Weinberg, who was senior rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation at the time and has since died, soon had his members bringing blankets and serving meals. Weinberg and Steinbruck “became fast friends” and worked together for years, said Marcia Weinberg, the rabbi’s wife.

When Steinbruck was told by Rabbi Weinberg that the Jewish community was picketing daily in front of the Soviet Embassy to convince the then-Soviet Union to let Jews leave, Steinbruck
not only joined the vigil, he also made sure during the High Holidays that members of his congregation manned the picket line.

The relationship with Luther Place, Washington Hebrew Congregation and other Jewish congregations continues to this day at what has become N Street Village. Marcia Weinberg brings members of the synagogue’s Empty Nesters club to the village monthly for ice cream socials and bingo games. Twice a year, through the generosity of WHC members, all women at N Street Village receive goodie bags filled with hats, gloves and toiletries.

While Weinberg constantly hears what a good thing it is to help others, she has come to believe the women of N Street Village have helped her more. “They are helping you to understand what it means to give of your heart,”
she said.

Ohr Kodesh Congregation and Adas Israel Congregation also are involved. Laura Epstein coordinates a monthly meal from Adas Israel, something her synagogue has been doing for more than 20 years. The D.C. synagogue also spends Christmas there, serving meals and singing songs.

“Being that we are a Jewish organization, I think we bring way too much food. Honestly, there is a lot of chicken, barbeque chicken or meat leaf and pasta,” said Epstein, who earned the nickname salad lady for all the salads she has made.

N Street Village serves 31,500 meals each day to the 1,400 women who stop in or live there. Besides food, they are offered free medical, dental and psychiatric services and lots of self-help programming. Some of the women need a short-term safety net, others remain for years, with the average stay about 18 months, according to chief development officer Stuart Allen.

The goal is to guide these women to “a better and more permanent solution [from] where they were,” Allen said.

The village is a conglomerate of adjoining buildings and programs. Bethany Women’s Center is the first stop for women in crisis. This drop-in program offers meals, showers, activities and support.

Here women recite daily, “We are N Street Village. We are a community of respect, recovery and hope. We create a safe and welcoming place with our words and actions. We expect kindness, and we value honesty and diversity.”

For those living in the village, there are 142 beds in six programs at three sites, each serving a specific audience, including women with AIDS or are HIV positive, women who just need a place to call home and women who need a great deal of help.

Due to a strategic partnership with United Health Care, medical care is offered to the women. Two small rooms are filled with clothing and shoes. A room with six computers offers the women a chance to learn computer skills, write emails or create a resume.

About half the women they serve have no income at all, according to Schroeder Stribling, executive director. The others average about $300 a month, with much of that money coming from benefits
and entitlements.

The women are generally in their 40s and 50s and enter N Street with a history of addictions and traumas. Most will never hold a job due to addictions, low literacy, history of incarceration or mental illness, she said.

Still, their lives are improved just by having a dependable place to stay and a supportive community, Stribling said. Everyone walking by receives a warm greeting from staff and volunteers.
They have “an ocean of need,” she said. “We do our part, but our part will never be enough.”

While some of the women attend services at Luther Place church or sing in its choir, religion is not forced upon them, Stribling said. “We really believe in the role of spirituality, in the role of healing” rather than a specific religion, she said. “The interfaith roots are just very important to us,” she said.

Self-help classes also are not forced upon the women, although those
who live in the village must take five classes and do one chore weekly. One day last week, the choice of classes included scarf making, poetry, spiritual recovery, biofeedback training and
relapse prevention.

N Street operates on roughly a $5 million yearly budget, about three-quarters of which comes from private donations, including a grant from the Naomi and Nehemiah Cohen Foundation, which has been donating since the early 1980s.

That family used to donate its Thanksgiving leftovers, and a bond
developed that exists to this day, said Alison McWilliams, executive director of the foundation.

The village is in the midst of a $9 million fundraising campaign. The money will be used for renovations and expansions, Stribling said.

“Every indication we have is that 20 years from now, the need will still be here. People will always be in need,” Stribling said.

Staffer Sharon Hart, a community organizer and welcome committee member, understands that. “We are all a moment and a paycheck away” from homelessness, she said.

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