‘Blitz build’ transforms dilapidated house into home for homeless youths in D.C.


Volunteers take part in the May 16 renovation project in the 5000 block of D Street SE, part of the Sasha Bruce Youthwork's "blitz build" of a new home for at-risk and homeless youth. (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST)
May 16, 2012

Tucked away on a quiet residential street in Marshall Heights, about a mile from the Benning Road Metro Station, past restaurants and churches, sat a house that was, in no uncertain terms, coming apart at the seams.

A red-brick, two-story vestige of mid-1940s D.C., the house at 5032 D St. SE was missing entire chunks of its roof. Eight inches of water stood in the basement.

On Wednesday, more than 100 volunteers bearing hammers and orange hard hats descended on the house — not just to make it habitable but to transform it into a home for the District’s homeless youths.

“We’re calling it a blitz build,” Jim Beck yelled over the din of a power saw cutting through plywood. Beck is the development director at Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a local nonprofit that helps at-risk kids — and the organization leading the renovation.

“When it was donated to us last July, this house was dilapidated. Totally unlivable,” he said. “We’re totally gutting it, adding new bathrooms, bedrooms, a kitchen, a community room, large windows, a greenhouse, a garden that we hope will become a community garden for the neighborhood.

“We even have a wishing tree,” Beck said, gesturing to the only source of shade in the front yard. Hanging from pieces of twine spun around the tree’s thick trunk were handwritten wishes composed by volunteers and passersby:

“Peace in the new home.” “For youth to have a mother and father.” “To create a dream and enjoy the journey.”

For many children, that is easier wished than accomplished.

In its 2012 report on homelessness released this week, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Homeless Services Planning and Coordinating Committee found that there are 3,338 homeless children in the District and its suburbs.

Last year, a survey of nearly 500 unaccompanied young people between ages 12 and 24 by the D.C. Alliance of Youth Advocates found that 330 were homeless on the night prior to filling out the survey. The others were at high risk of homelessness or living in unstable housing situations, according to the alliance.

Youthwork operates 60 units of housing for young people who are homeless. The renovated home on D Street will be able to house eight people, specifically older teenagers.

“There isn’t really a place for the older youth, the 17-, 18-, 19-year-olds,” said Dan Davis, Youthwork’s outreach director. “Young people are being asked by their families to step up and help out at home. When they can’t, they need to find another place to live. That might mean staying with a girlfriend or something. . . . Then those welcomes eventually get shorter and fewer and far between. We’re expanding the capacity for that population.”

But housing is only one part of the equation, said Deborah Shore, who founded Youthwork in 1974. She has worked for the past four decades trying to prevent the types of situations that lead to youth homelessness.

“We want to strengthen young people’s capacity to imagine their future and to recognize what’s getting in the way,” Shore said.

As a result, Youthwork’s mission now is not only to provide housing but also to provide job-training opportunities. On Wednesday, about 20 of the 100 or so volunteers were young members of Youthwork’s workforce development plan.

They learned to set tile in the new bathrooms, lay down the sub-flooring in the living room and cut plywood under the shade of the wishing tree.

Stanley Jones, 20, who was on cutting duty in the front yard, said he began volunteering at Youthwork because he “needed something to do.”

“We need more jobs out here,” he said. “We’re not getting paid for this, but it’s giving us hands-on experience for real jobs.”

Although Jones, who grew up in Southeast D.C. and now lives in the Georgia Avenue-Petworth area, had already been a Youthwork volunteer for close to one year, Wednesday marked his first time on a job site.

“I’m keeping my options open, but so far I really like construction,” he said.

The idea for Wednesday’s “blitz build” evolved from a similar event held in New Orleans last year. To coincide with the American Institute of Architects convention, a construction information provider called Reed Construction Data organized a day-long attempt to rebuild five houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina in the city’s 9th Ward.

The day was such a success, said Iaian Melville, Reed Construction Data’s CEO, that the company decided to make it an annual event. The District was chosen as the second location because it’s where the 2012 AIA convention is being held.

In 2013, Melville plans to once again follow the convention and do a “blitz build” in Denver.

“You can do this every day somewhere and not even scratch the surface of what needs to be done,” Melville said.

The renovations to the D Street home are estimated at $450,000 and rely on donations and sponsors. As of Wednesday, the project was still $100,000 short of what it needs for completion.

But the Youthwork team is hopeful that the support will come, allowing them to open the 3,200-square-foot house by October.

“These are kids who have the same hopes and dreams as everyone else,” said volunteer Matthew Aronson, “but they don’t have the resources. We’re helping connect them to all the things that we take for granted.”

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