Because of what a member of the House District Appropriations subcommittee calls an oversight, only one of the District's two youth runaway houses is earmarked to receive federal funding to keep operating this year. The other may be forced to close.
Rep. John E. Porter (R-Ill.) says the oversight occurred because a District government official failed to send him adequate information on city runaway programs. But the city official, social services commissioner Audrey Rowe, said she sent a full report, detailing budget needs for both houses.
The two facilities are the Sasha Bruce House at 701 Maryland Ave. NE, and SAJA Runaway House at 1743 18th St. NW. Sasha Bruce House received the congressional funding nod, while SAJA did not.
SAJA contends that politically well-connected officials of Sasha Bruce House, including cofounder Evangeline Bruce, widow of former ambassador David K.E. Bruce, arranged for the exclusive funding through Porter's office. Both Porter and Sasha Bruce House officials deny deliberately excluding SAJA.
Last spring, Porter, in an attempt to offset the impact of cuts in the federal Runaway Youth Act on the District's runaway services, drafted a bill to add $104,000 to the budget of the Department of Human Services, which oversees the District's runaway programs.
Porter, however, earmarked the funds for Sasha Bruce House. He said he did not learn that there was a second facility until he read a Washington Post article about SAJA's declaration of bankruptcy last August.
"Yes, this may have been an oversight," Porter said in an interview. "But we're all human. You try to help a program and you act on the information you receive. Mistakes are made all along the way."
To make amends, Porter said he intends to push for additional funding for SAJA early next year when hearings are held on the city's supplemental budget request for 1982.
But Cornelius Williams, executive director of SAJA, said, "There seems to be some political game playing going on. If Porter got information on Sasha, he got information on SAJA, too. This is just another example of how outsiders try to control what the city government does with its money. Why didn't Porter just add the money to the city budget without any strings attached? That way, city officials could have decided how to spend it."
Williams said SAJA declared bankruptcy and closed down briefly last August, then opened again with staff members working as unpaid volunteers and drawing unemployment checks from the city. Williams said SAJA may be forced to close its doors indefinitely if funds are not found soon.
Gordon Achilles, a Porter aide assigned to gather information and assess the District's need for runaway services, maintains he never received information on SAJA from Rowe's office in the District government. Rowe said, however, that "I sent Gordon Achilles an information packet on both the Sasha and SAJA houses, and he knows it." She said the packet included copies of each house's 1981 budget requests and a cover letter briefly explaining their services and appraising the District's need for runaway houses.
While denying they received the SAJA information, both Porter and Achilles acknowledged they were contacted by representatives of Sasha Bruce House for additional funding. "We know some people on their board of directors," Porter said.
"I've talked to Evangeline Bruce about the program," said Achilles. "Yes, I've talked to several board members about this."
Evangeline Bruce denied talking to Porter's office, but Sasha Bruce House executive director Deborah Shore said, "We were in a position where we had to plan for our survival. Congressman Porter saw us as a viable program. That's all I have to say."
Both the Sasha Bruce and SAJA houses are 12-bed facilities that provide temporary shelter, food and counseling for homeless and runaway youths. Each house has six beds for girls and six for boys. The houses are almost always filled to capacity.
In its 1980 annual budget report, Sasha Bruce House reported it provided for 300 youths during the year. SAJA reported providing for 270 youngsters.
The youths, who range in age from 12 to 17, have either voluntarily left their homes or been "pushed out" or "thrown out" by parents or guardians, workers at both houses say. Many have criminal records, they say.
Shasha Bruce House is named in memory of Alexandra (Sasha) Bruce, a daughter of David and Evangeline Bruce, who died in 1975. SAJA is an acronym for Special Approaches to Juvenile Assistance.