A bigger spotlight now shines on D.C.’s runaway teens. This home has helped them for 40 years.By Perry Stein April 7
The Washington Post
"This is a non-stress environment. We give them the permission to be a young person," said LaShelle Richmond, program director at Sasha Bruce Youthwork. The organization operates the Sasha Bruce House in Northeast Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Their dreams are scribbled on colorful sticky notes in the house’s recreation room. "I aspire to be great," reads one. "A lawyer," says another. "I plan to achieve a sense of maturity," a teenager wrote.
These are the aspirations of the children living at the Sasha Bruce House in Northeast Washington – a place where some of the city’s most vulnerable teenagers go when they have nowhere else. Some have run away from home, others have no homes to run back to and almost all feel this teenage shelter is their only safe option.
"This is a non-stress environment. We give them the permission to be a young person," said LaShelle Richmond, program director at Sasha Bruce Youthwork, which operates the Sasha Bruce House. "They’re smart, they’re creative, they’re leaders, but how do we get to them early enough where they don’t end up in the juvenile justice system?"
The Sasha Bruce Youthwork has provided resources and beds to teenagers and young adults in crisis for more than 40 years – long before a string of missing D.C. teens recently thrust the issue into a larger spotlight. About 190 juveniles go missing each month in the District, and some find their way here.
Late last year, a D.C. police official decided to publicize every missing child in the city on social media. News outlets and celebrities on Twitter took notice, calling attention to a perceived epidemic of missing teenage girls in Washington. The Congressional Black Caucus called for an FBI investigation. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and interim police chief Peter Newsham tried to assuage public concerns during a news conference, saying there was no uptick in missing teenagers, only a change in how cases were publicized. D.C. police say 99 percent of people who go missing are eventually found.
Bowser said the issue is especially acute in the city’s poorest communities, where some think it is safer to run away than stay at home. She announced a plan that would, in part, dedicate more resources to social services that help teens who run away. Sasha Bruce Youthwork could stand to receive more city grants from the plan. "I’ve been in this business a long time," said Deborah Shore, founder and executive director of Sasha Bruce Youthwork. "It’s very gratifying to me that people are finally talking about a system that ties it all together."
The District allocates $2.41 million annually to homeless youth services. The city gives about $200,000 to the Sasha Bruce House each year and about $500,000 to the Sasha Bruce Youthwork’s drop-in center on Barracks Row, where children can eat, shower or just talk to someone between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.
Bowser lauded Sasha Bruce’s efforts to make stints of youth homelessness more brief and rare in the District. "They work with some of the most vulnerable young people in our city – reuniting them with their families, connecting them to educational and employment opportunities, and ensuring they have a safe place to turn when in need of shelter or other services," she wrote in an email. Richmond, who has been with the organization for nearly 20 years, helps to oversee the house near the H Street NE corridor. Over the past three years, 345 children ages 12 to 17 have stayed in the 10-bed facility. The average stay is about three weeks, a time when staff members work through a child’s problems and determine whether it’s safe to reunite the teen with family.
The house provides structured days to teenagers often facing turmoil. There are rides to school, art classes and a house dinner each evening before early curfews. On weekends, there are trips to museums. On birthdays, celebrations at Dave & Buster’s. When teens walk through the door, a staff member greets them with pajamas and offers to wash their clothes.
"The first thing we want to do is provide them with the feeling they’re safe," Richmond said. "They can always have a safe place here, but what we really need to do is to get to the root of the problem." The exterior of the Sasha Bruce House, which provides a place for teenagers who are homeless or have run away. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Richmond hangs their artwork around the house like a proud parent and talks with them about their days. She recalls success stories of teens who returned to improved environments back home.
She said some teenage girls think they are in relationships with older men but unknowingly are trading sex for a place to live. Others come from abusive homes. Sometimes, parents don’t have stable homes of their own and can’t provide a roof for their teenagers. In other situations, pregnant and gay teenagers say they cannot turn to their families, so they turn to the Sasha Bruce House.
"Our young ladies have the most troubling cases, because most of them are trying to find their identity and how to express themselves and fit in with their families," Richmond said. "The friction builds up with their families, and they turn to the streets."
For Richmond, her dedication to the mission of Sasha Bruce is personal. She was born in the District’s Petworth neighborhood to a single, 13-year-old mother, raised by her grandmother and mother with the support of neighbors. If she hadn’t had that support system, she said, she might have needed services like those she provides.
"I could have been any one of these young people coming through these doors, but I had the resources to take me through that journey" she said. "My dad didn’t support me, but look at me now. Your circumstances don’t have to define who you are."
Lois Long, in memoriamMembers of the DC and Virginia Chapters of Partners of the Americas attend the lovely memorial service for our dear, long-time friend Lois Long on Sunday, February 19, 2017, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, Virginia. Dana Shaw and Denise Decker spoke about the myriad contributions Lois made to the Chapters and of her love of Brazil. Lois will be greatly missed.
DC Partners sadly announces the passing of our Partners friend Lois Culver Long
The DC Partners sadly announces the passing of our Partners friend, Lois Culver Long, who passed away at Fairfax Hospital yesterday, January 8th, with her family by her side. Lois became ill over Christmas; however, her condition worsened this past week.
Lois was a loyal and enthusiastic member of both the Virginia-Santa Catarina and Washington, DC-Brasilia chapters of the Partners of the Americas. She had been a member of Partners from the early years with her husband as Indiana-Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil) members, before they moved to Virginia. As an artist and photographer, Lois graced our events with her photos from her trips to Brazil that spoke of the beauty of the country and its people, and arranged exhibits to celebrate our special events. From her interest in recreation, Lois livened up our events with games and unique ways of getting to know each other.
Lois represented the spirit of Partners in our projects with Brazil, offering home hospitality and escorting visitors over the years. Her legacy will be the passion and enthusiasm she felt for young people from her experience with recreational workshops and for nature and humanity, from her photography. Aside from Partners, Lois had many interests and involvement with other organizations, among them the National Museum of Women in the Arts. We will miss her energy and generous spirit as someone who cared deeply about community, friendship, and personal relationships with our southern members as a way towards peace.