At the Brooks, a temporary home for District families in need
But the Brooks had done what it’s supposed to do: serve as a bridge between homelessness and stability.
Before the Brooks — and before the seven other family buildings that dot the city, constructed as part of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s plan to end homelessness in the District — there was D.C. General, the troubled shelter in Southeast. The Brooks was built atop the old parking area for the D.C. police Second District headquarters on Idaho Avenue NW. The six-story building opened in April 2020. It is operated by Friendship Place, a nonprofit that is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand.
Named in honor of the late Donald Brooks, an advocate for people experiencing homelessness, it’s bright and airy, like a boutique hotel, with room for 50 families. These are families in crisis, either experiencing homelessness or in immediate danger of falling into it. Some, like the mother I met, are escaping domestic violence. (That’s the reason I’m not using her name.)
Each family lives in its own dorm-style room with beds, dressers, nightstands and a minifridge. There’s a community room on each floor and a laundry room. Most residents share bathrooms. About a fifth of the units have their own bathroom.
Downstairs, breakfast and dinner are prepared for residents. There’s a computer room, too, and a multipurpose room. Out back is a playground.
Those are the tangible amenities of the Brooks. Just as important are the intangible ones, people such as Evelyn Velasquez, a Friendship Place case manager.
“She gave me the tools,” the 31-year-old mother said of Velasquez. “I just had to apply myself.”
Shortly after arriving, each family is matched with a case manager, who meets with the families twice a week.
“They really get a feel for what any particular family is going through, what their needs might be and what supports they need,” said Orelia Lesh, the Friendship Place social worker who is the acting program director at the Brooks.
Case managers help get children squared away in school and see whether funds are needed for school uniforms or supplies. They check whether families are receiving all the public benefits to which they are entitled. They connect clients with credit repair services, if that’s what has been standing in the way of an apartment. They help with job searches and housing searches.
And they listen. It took a while for the 31-year-old mother to realize she was experiencing domestic violence. It was clear enough once her partner struck her and choked her, but there had been psychological abuse earlier, she said, such as the monitoring of her texts, emails and social media posts.
“I did decide to go into a shelter, something I always feared,” she said. “I had to get away from him and find my own safety.”
Families typically stay at the Brooks no longer than 90 days. The aim is to get them into rapid rehousing, a program that provides subsidized housing for 12 to 18 months, along with support that will enable them to afford their own full-market rent.
The Brooks, said Jenna Cevasco, short-term family housing program manager at the D.C. Department of Human Services, is “a safe place to stay temporarily while you get back on your feet.”
And it comes, Lesh added, “with all the supports in place to do that, so folks aren’t really doing that alone. They’re doing that with our presence, with our encouragement, with our celebrating even the smallest of their victories.”
Today’s victory is a farewell, as the 31-year-old mother gathers her children and moves to the family’s new apartment.
“I learned not to give up,” she said. “I’m not going to give up. I’ve got four little reasons why I’ve got to keep going.”
And we’ve got to keep going, too! Time is running out in this year’s Helping Hand campaign. Our goal is to raise $250,000 for Friendship Place and our two other partner organizations, Bread for the City and Miriam’s Kitchen. So far, we’ve raised $131,439.06.
The Helping Hand campaign will end Jan. 7. Please donate today.
To give, visit posthelpinghand.com and click where it says “Donate.” To give to Friendship Place by mail, send a check to Friendship Place, 3655 Calvert St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20007.
Read more from John Kelly.