To help home­less women in D.C., it takes a Vil­lage

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The first job Schroeder

Stri­b­ling had af­ter col­lege was at the last place most peo­ple would want to be: the West­bor­ough State Hospi­tal, a pub­lic psy­chi­atric fa­cil­ity in Mas­sachusetts. She had been an in­tern there ear­lier, while earn­ing a grad­u­ate de­gree in so­cial work from Smith Col­lege.

“My job was to make a con­nec­tion with peo­ple,” Stri­b­ling said. As a ther­a­pist in the hospi­tal’s acute unit, she per­formed di­ag­nos­tic eval­u­a­tions, planned treat­ments, worked with pa­tients as they weath­ered their crises and — hope­fully — saw them even­tu­ally dis­charged.

Work­ing there, Stri­b­ling said, “was of­ten pro­foundly mov­ing. Some­times it was sad. It felt tri­umphant when you did man­age to make an al­liance with some­one.”

Stri­b­ling is still mak­ing those con­nec­tions and wit­ness­ing those hard-won tri­umphs. She’s the chief ex­ec­u­tive of N Street Vil­lage, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that helps women who are home­less in the Dis­trict. It is a part­ner in The Wash­ing­ton Post Help­ing Hand.

Al­though it has N Street in its name — and was born at 14th and N streets NW — the Vil­lage pro­vides a broad col­lec­tion of vi­tal ser­vices across the city, from overnight shel­ters for women who carry their lives with them to ad­dic­tion re­cov­ery ser­vices, from a day cen­ter where women can shower to ré­sumé-writ­ing work­shops for those ready to reen­ter the work­place.

The Vil­lage grew out of work at Luther Place Me­mo­rial Church in Thomas Cir­cle. The Lutheran church dates to 1873. A cen­tury later, its 14th Street neigh­bor­hood was eco­nom­i­cally de­pressed, rife with pros­ti­tu­tion, drug use and home­less­ness. Peo­ple with­out a home of­ten slept on the church’s steps. Luther Place’s then-pas­tor, John Stein­bruck, and his wife, Erna, in­vited them in­side.

Stein­bruck was a force to be reck­oned with, forc­ing the city to con­front its prob­lems. (He would reg­u­larly con­tact the White House to im­plore that food left over from ban­quets be sent to shel­ters like his. His re­quests were ig­nored.)

What started as a warm place for home­less women to sleep grew over the years. Chur­chowned build­ings on N Street were con­verted into hous­ing, start­ing a process that con­tin­ues. N Street Vil­lage over­sees five lo­ca­tions across the Dis­trict, of­fer­ing tem­po­rary and per­ma­nent hous­ing, along with pro­grams for women who are deal­ing with trauma, ad­dic­tion, men­tal health is­sues and med­i­cal prob­lems.

To­day, N Street Vil­lage serves about 2,000 women an­nu­ally.

Stri­b­ling joined the char­ity in 2003 as its pro­gram direc­tor. In 2007, she com­pleted a pro­gram in non­profit man­age­ment at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity and three years later was pro­moted to the top job at the Vil­lage.

I asked Stri­b­ling if there’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween a women’s shel­ter and a men’s shel­ter. She said there’s a unique sense of con­nect­ed­ness that arises among clients at the Vil­lage. “It’s also the case that al­most all [clients] — and I would wa­ger all, de­pend­ing on how you de­fine it — have ex­pe­ri­enced trauma of some form,” she said. “Many women have ex­pe­ri­enced trauma that be­came quite di­rectly the rea­son for their home­less­ness — women who fled vi­o­lent sit­u­a­tions — or they’ve ex­pe­ri­enced vi­o­lence in the course of their ad­dic­tion.”

Be­cause of that, the peo­ple who work at N Street Vil­lage strive to make it a place that of­fers not just tan­gi­ble phys­i­cal com­forts — a meal, a bed — but also a less tan­gi­ble one: a con­nec­tion on a sooth­ing, per­sonal level.

Said Stri­b­ling: “If I walked in to­day and what you had to of­fer me was a shower, a meal — what­ever — but you did not also of­fer me some sense that you saw me as a dig­ni­fied, in­di­vid­ual hu­man be­ing, I’m much less likely to be able to take that ini­tial step for­ward.”

To­day’s ur­ban crises can seem un­nerv­ingly fa­mil­iar to those of us who re­mem­ber the 1980s, a time when such harsh terms as “street peo­ple” and “bag lady” were thrown about. I asked Stri­b­ling if it was dif­fi­cult for non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions such as N Street Vil­lage to move the nee­dle, so to speak, on the root causes of home­less­ness.

Home­less­ness, she said, is just the tip of an ice­berg that’s held up by a com­plex foun­da­tion of long-stand­ing so­cial, racial and eco­nomic in­equities, along with the choices we make as a coun­try on such things as hous­ing pol­icy.

So, yes, it’s hard to move that big nee­dle.

But at N Street Vil­lage, “the in­di­vid­ual per­son’s nee­dle goes like that,” Stri­b­ling said, sweep­ing her fore­arm in a 90de­gree arc. “At least one per­son ev­ery day. That’s worth see­ing and is re­ally re­mark­able. This is a pretty joy­ful place to be around.”

Help­ing Hand

You can help spread the joy. N Street Vil­lage is a part­ner in The Wash­ing­ton Post Help­ing Hand. To sup­port its vi­tal work with a tax-de­ductible do­na­tion, visit pos­thelp­ing­ To do­nate by mail, make a check payable to N Street Vil­lage and send it to N Street Vil­lage, Attn: Help­ing Hand, 1333 N St. NW, Wash­ing­ton, D.C. 20005.

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