Apartment Building for Homeless Women Set to Open in D.C.

By Yamiche Alcindor
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 3, 2009

A newly renovated apartment building will soon open its doors to 16 of the District's most vulnerable single homeless women.

The Dunbar, developed by Open Arms Housing, is designed for women who have been homeless for more than a year or who have been homeless at least four times in the past year. Women make up about 25 percent of the estimated 4,000 single homeless people in the District.

Unlike residents of emergency shelters, Dunbar residents can stay as long as they want.

"It's about trying to find solutions that make sense," said Marilyn Kresky-Wolff, executive director of Open Arms. "It's about trying to keep people from falling back into homelessness."

The three-story building, in the unit block of O Street NW, has 19 apartments. Rent will vary depending on a tenant's income. Each tenant will be expected to pay one-third of her income as rent, and the D.C. Housing Authority will provide $1.7 million over 15 years in rental subsidies to cover the rest.

Kresky-Wolff said the housing should help women who are often overlooked -- those with behavioral, mental and substance abuse issues that make living in large group settings difficult.

It took Open Arms 15 years to raise $2.7 million to renovate the building with funds mostly from the city and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but also from private donors and lenders.

With residents expected to move in within weeks, the smell of fresh paint permeates the building. Individual apartments, each 250 to 300 square feet, have a bedroom, a small living room and a kitchen.

Each floor also has a common room for meetings of support groups and activities dedicated to helping the tenants deal with some of the issues surrounding their homelessness, Kresky-Wolff said.

Although some housing programs require residents to enroll in counseling and treatment programs, Open Arms will just encourage them to seek help. The approach is part of its "housing first" philosophy that people should be housed before being required to get more help.

"The idea is to treat them like tenants," she said. "This is low-demand, low-barrier housing."

Residents will be encouraged to attend weekly meetings with the Open Arms staff and other residents, Kresky-Wolff said.

Officials are now interviewing applicants. Priority will be given to women on the "vulnerability list" of women in most need, put together by the departments of human services and mental health.

One of the building's apartments will be set aside for a resident manager, and two apartments will be reserved for volunteers interested in working with the residents.

"We believe the Dunbar will have an enduring positive impact on both the residents who will find supportive homes here and the community that will have one less vacant property," said Leila Finucane Edmonds, director of the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Open Arms will have to continue applying for funds from various resources to keep the building open.

This year, the number of homeless single people in the District dropped by 6.5 percent in part because of places like the Dunbar, according to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. The city has 53 permanent housing facilities for the formerly homeless. Seven of them serve women, and 41 house men and women.

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