D.C., partners unveil new housing for homeless

October 14, 2011

Denise Gibson’s mother was homeless. Her brother was homeless. And from the time she was 21 and discharged from foster care, Gibson was homeless.

Plenty of nights were spent “riding the bus until the bus stopped running,” she said. Other nights, she slept in stairwells with her daughter, who has since been been placed in the D.C. child welfare system.

“Being homeless is basically a cycle,” she said.

But Gibson, now 27, will break this cycle in the next few weeks. She will be one of the first residents of a newly renovated, affordable and permanent housing complex in Congress Heights.

The Mississippi Avenue Apartments development is the first of three permanent housing complexes the District plans to open in the next two months that will house some of the neediest families currently staying in city shelters, said Fred Swan, who runs the Family Services Administration. The FSA oversees the District’s homeless services programs.

Fourteen families and five individuals who have been homeless for at least a year, or periodically over the past four years, will have apartments in the District-owned building. For many of them, “this is their first apartment in their name,” said Sarah Roenfeldt of Community of Hope, a D.C. nonprofit group that will provide on-site social services to address employment, child care, mental health and addiction issues.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and other officials, including David Berns, director of the Department of Human Services, visited the apartments Oct. 13 for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. But residents are still awaiting the okay to move in. A final round of inspections must be completed, said Community of Hope Executive Director Kelly McShane. Residents should be able to move in next month, she said.

Community of Hope, which has worked with homeless and low-income adults and children for 30 years, is one of various agencies, including the William C. Smith and Co. real estate firm, D.C. Department of Human Services, D.C. Housing Authority and D.C. Department of Mental Health, that have worked together over the past three years to develop the Southeast Washington property.

The building, which was once a police station, has been vacant for almost 20 years. “It was a terrible eyesore,” said James Bunn, a longtime resident in Ward 8 who chairs a community revitalization program called Congress Heights Main Street. People didn’t even want to go near the building because of concerns about asbestos, he said.

Now, the apartment complex includes 19 sunlit, brightly painted units that have one, two or three bedrooms. Four units will be accessible to people with disabilities.

Single mothers such as Gibson, who now has a 7-month-old son, will make up most of the families living here, said Elizabeth Smith, another Community of Hope program manager.

The D.C. Housing Authority will provide rent subsidies, and families will be expected to pay 30 percent of their income. In cases in which families don’t have an income, they won’t have to pay anything right away. But helping residents find employment and increase their income will be one of Community of Hope’s priorities, McShane said.

“This is a way to really move up,” said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who chairs the council’s Human Services Committee.

There is no time limit for how long residents can stay, Swan said. The hope is that after being settled for a while and receiving services, residents will eventually be able to move on, he said.

For now, Gibson and other new residents are ready to move in.

“I’m packing and ready to go!” she said.

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