In lower Northwest Washington, there are five group homes for children and youths whose own families are in turmoil and who need a place to stay -- fast. Some have been sexually abused, some thrown out on the streets.
"We're talking about some kids who have been victims since before birth because they were born to parents who were on drugs," said Ray White, a spokesman for the Boys' and Girls' Club of Greater Washington, which operates four of the emergency homes. The nonprofit organization sponsors cultural, recreational and educational programs for youngsters at centers throughout the city and has expanded its operation to reach those who are especially troubled.
"They come to us off the streets with only the clothes on their back," he said. "We give them toothbrushes, clothes . . . and love."
The children often are placed at one of the club's homes by the Department of Human Services (DHS) or by the courts. The goal is to resolve the family turmoil within 60 days and send the child home. Failing that, the child usually is sent to a foster home or some other type of long-term care facility.
Unlike foster homes, emergency group homes must take any child DHS brings in at any hour. Both the Boys' and Girls' Club and an emergency home for girls run by the Institute of Behavioral Resources in the same Northwest neighborhood work under contract to the city.
"It was determined in the early '70s that institutions are too restrictive for youngsters," said DHS social worker Robert Whittington, who is a liaison with the youth homes. "Now the trend is towards community-oriented, less restricted environments. Programs try to emulate family situations."
The Boys' and Girls' Club sought a contract with the city so it could reach children it was missing in its after-school programs, said Edward L. Hudson, assistant executive director and vice president of the organization.
"For four years, I talked with people running group homes and tried to get them to get their children involved in our clubs," Hudson said. "I was unsuccessful, so when DHS put out contracts for nonprofit organizations to run homes, we jumped at it."
Each child who enters a club home becomes a member of the club itself, he said.
"We try to create a home-like environment for as long as we have them," Hudson said. "Then we are trying to keep in touch with them after they leave" through the club programs.
The organization showed off three emergency homes at a recent open house. "Central House," at 2539 13th St. NW, is for boys 8 to 12. Next door, at 2541 13th St., is "Jellef" for girls of all ages. "Eastern House," around the corner at 1211 Euclid St. NW, is for boys 13 to 18.
"We're trying to break down some of the fear that exists between these kids and some citizens, particularly senior citizens," White said, explaining the open house. "We want neighbors to see that this isn't just a bunch of bad kids. These kids have worked to renovate these houses."
Hudson said he has met with the Neighborhood Advisory Commission in an effort to calm fears. "Every time something bad happens, a few neighbors say, 'The group home kids did it,' " he said.
The homes, in operation nearly a year now, have provided shelter for about 200 young people, Hudson said. When the open house was held, 20 boys and girls were living in the homes.
The day before the big event, boys at "Eastern House" were up until 2 a.m. scrubbing the kitchen floor, polishing furniture and washing bathroom sinks. When visitors arrived, three of the boys sat in the living room looking like proud homeowners.
An adult visitor sat on a sofa arm. "Don't sit on that, please," a 16-year-old said politely. "I'm trying to keep it nice as long as possible. I've never worked on anything as hard as I've worked on this house," he said later.
Over the summer the boys spent hours sanding and shellacking the houses' hardwood floors. Now the hard work was paying off. Compliments abounded.
"It took about a day to sand just a few steps," the 18-year-old tour guide said. He told visitors he moved to a permanent home "about a week ago. I miss my friends, but I'm close by and I visit a lot."
He added, "Overall, it was pretty nice staying here. Of course, at times it was hectic. But I had a negative attitude about a lot of things when I got here and that's slowed down. I talked to the counselors a lot."
Walter Stancell, the head counselor of the house, was worried about the young man at first because he was one of the first white youths to live at the house.
"But he got along well because he was real patient and tolerant and because another youngster, a 20-year-old black youth, helped him a lot," Stancell said. "They became best friends and the black guy got him involved in some volunteer work at the Smithsonian and the Martin Luther King Library."
The 20-year-old "best friend" also was leaving the home. "I think I'm gonna miss the fellas. I made a lot of friends here," he said. "I learned to live with people from different backgrounds. I learned a lot of skills from working on the house. And since I worked on the house, I'm pretty proud of it."
He will live at a permanent home nearby while he finishes high school this year. With encouragement from the home's education specialist, he has decided go to college and to major in "business management and political science."
The counselors have high hopes for him. Their reward, they say, is watching the youths improve.
"Sometimes your heart bleeds because of the problems they have," said Betty Jane Harris, the head counselor at Jellef. "I have two girls right now who have been sexually abused."
Among the girls living at Jellef are a 17-year-old Jamaican who just entered an enrichment program for high school students at Howard University, a 10-year-old whose younger brother stays in the shelter next door, and a 14-year-old who is deaf, but who Harris says "communicates well with the other children."
Despite the problems, the counselors maintain an upbeat attitude.
"If you don't love this job and get your heart filled with it, it won't work," said Phyllis McCormick, head counselor at "Central House," where she cares for seven boys before going home to her own four children.
"I understand these kids because some of the little things they do, I've done," McCormick said. "I came out of that, and this work is like reaching back and pulling them out."
Stancell has one success story he particularly likes to tell:
"One of my most critical cases was a child who was admitted because his mother was an alcoholic. He used to run away from home so he was put here. On the second day he was here his mother died. He felt responsible for her drinking and, therefore, for her death.
"He went through a lot of mental changes and a great deal of depression. He finally adjusted," Stancell said, laughing. "They found him a good foster home with a wealthy family on the Gold Coast. Last time I heard from them, he was doing real well."