With Ben's Chili Bowl and the Lincoln Theatre serving as a backdrop, the city opened the doors of a community-based mental health facility yesterday on the U Street corridor, the heart of a neighborhood undergoing a major revitalization.
"If you need help . . . mental health services for yourself or your children, you can come here, right in the neighborhood," said Martha B. Knisley, director of the D.C. Department of Mental Health. "We have set a new standard for community expectation."
The center sits in a Northwest Washington block anchored by the African American Civil War Memorial Museum, and in the same building as Starbucks, Quiznos and H&R Block, located on the ground floor.
"This is the city we've dreamed of," D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said during a ribbon-cutting ceremony. "Everything at your fingertips, and the District government right here in the heart of it."
Unlike most District government buildings that prominently display the services they offer, this one is simply named "1250 U St. NW."
There's no sign that it's a part of the Mental Health Department, the third community-based site to open since 2001. City mental health officials say the name was left off the building in an effort to make the "consumers" of the services feel comfortable.
"If you really don't want to be seen coming into a mental health facility, we don't want to stigmatize you," Knisley said. "We're a decade away from advertising on the building that this is mental health services."
But moving mental health services to neighborhoods is part of an overall effort to strengthen families and communities, Knisley said. About 7,000 children, youth and adults receive services at seven major sites in the District, she said.
City mental health caseworkers are expected to spend half of their time going to people's homes, schools and other locations, such as homeless shelters, to reach out to residents who could use centers like the one on U Street, Knisley said.
The 44,000-square-foot, four-story building on U Street houses two mental health programs: the Northwest Child and Family Community Support Center, which provides services to adults, children and youth; and Multicultural Community Support Services, a program for residents who are trying to assimilate into communities throughout the city.
The building's first floor also has an office for a Lifelong Learning Center, a part of the city's State Education Office, which will focus on literacy services for residents who speak English as a second language.
Lawrence T. Guyot Jr., an advisory neighborhood commissioner, said that initially, some residents raised concerns that the services would create additional parking problems along the busy U Street corridor, but city officials stressed that the facility is above a Metro station.
"This is what delivery of services is really about," Guyot said. "We like the mixture of mental health services in the midst of the businesses. I think it will work. This atmosphere will make it more conducive to people coming for services."
Evelyn Robinson of Northwest Washington said her family started using the services of the child and family support center in April, five months before it moved to U Street. She said her two children have improved their grades and shown a complete turnaround in their attitudes.
Although Robinson is open about using mental health services for her family, she said she recognizes that some in the African American community are reluctant to seek help.
"They don't know what to ask for or how to ask for it," said Robinson, an art teacher in an after-school program.
As Knisley walked through the building with other directors, she talked about how the mentally ill are no longer isolated from the rest of society. Placing a facility in the heart of a busy city corridor sends a message that it's as acceptable to use the facility as it is to use the SunTrust Bank located on the building's ground floor.