HEALING A BROKEN SPIRIT
Gisele knew N Street Village’s doors were open to her.
She had come here before, in 1991, homeless and drug addicted. More than 20 years later, the demons got the better of her again.
“I came here not having anything except a broken spirit,” she said.
Since 1972, N Street Village has been serving DC-area women affected by homelessness. From a drop-in day center with activities, food and access to laundry, to recovery programs and permanent supportive housing, N Street Village serves nearly 1,400 homeless and low-income women each year, according to the organization’s website.
“N Street Village really is a toolkit,” said chief development officer Stuart Elizabeth Allen. “Each woman who comes here every day uses the tools to rebuild her life.”
The first goal, she said, is to establish a sense of trust. Despite the services available, some women might not be ready to ask for more than a meal and a place to sit quietly at first. Integration can be gradual: A meal, a conversation, a yoga class or art session at Bethany Women’s Center, N Street’s drop-in day program. Then, if needed, entry into addiction recovery, mental and physical health services at N Street’s Wellness Center, and moving toward permanent supportive housing, and independent living.
“For some women,” Allen said, “this is home. Their highest level of self-sufficiency is going to be where they need this wrap-around service. And that’s okay.”
When she re-entered N Street Village in 2013, Gisele spent two months moving between a shelter and the day program. She eventually began a substance abuse program.
Now, she said, she tries to set an example for ladies who are new to the program. “The sky’s the limit for Gisele,” she said. “This is a place I can rebuild myself and try to live my dreams.”
Dreams like staying healthy, going back to school to become a substance abuse counselor, and helping her 29-year-old son build his life.
“There were periods in his life when I was just missing,” she said, “but I don’t believe in throwing in the towel.”
The biggest hurdle to overcome, she said, has been forgiving herself.
IT'S THE CLIMB
Street Village offers a sense of community, particularly for those who have been missing that.
“It’s something we all crave and need,” Allen said.
Walking the halls of N Street Village, women greet one another heartily and by name. Throughout the halls, clients’ art hangs on the walls.
This past summer, interns Annabel Simpson and Devon Fore helped the women of N Street Village create a collage titled “It’s the Climb.” The work depicts mountains interspersed with stars and clouds. Written on the stars and clouds are goals and affirmations.
To keep my sobriety.
Become a mom.
Go to law school.
Anything is possible, if only you believe.
There are no more clouds.
“The inspiration for me is recognizing the resilience of the women here,” said Devon, a peace building and development major at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.
“Some women think they aren’t creative,” said staff community organizer Sharon Hart, in a tone that expresses her disagreement with the sentiment. Referred to as the “heart of the village,” Hart has been on staff at N Street for 27 years. She oversees arts programs. The fruits of her labors can be seen everywhere.
N Street’s own beginnings can be found at Luther Place Memorial Church, across the street. Forty-three years ago, members of the church helped offer a place for homeless people to lay their heads at night – a series of mats on a floor. Now, more than 200 women each night have a safe place to sleep.
Luther Place still serves as a night shelter and maintains a close relationship. Once a week, Rev. Karen Brau, pastor at Luther Place, leads the N Street Choir in song.
The choir recently performed at the swearing in of Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, or as anyone in the position is informally known, the drug czar.
Like many of the women at N Street Village, Botticelli himself once struggled with drug abuse. According to an April New York Times article, his goal is recovery, not punishment.
“Locking people up for minor drug offenses, and especially people with substance-use disorders, is not the answer,” the Times article quotes him as saying. “It’s cruel. It’s costly. And it doesn’t make the public any safer.”
N Street Village also cottons to this particular hands, not handcuffs, philosophy. Stuart Allen tells of a client who was sober for nine years, then relapsed. She began the climb back up the proverbial mountain, and tumbled down again.
“People are always looking for the success stories, “ Allen said. “But this is why we’re doing this. Women are going to move on, and N Street village is always going to be there. When (a relapse) happens, N Street village is always going to be there. That was a day I was like, ‘thank goodness we’re here.”