A few years ago, it was a crack house. Today, the freshly painted rowhouse in Columbia Heights is decorated with glossy photos of El Salvador and Mexico and inspirational posters with messages like "Piensa bien de ti mismo" -- Think well of yourself.
The home on 15th Street NW is part of a small but expanding program aimed at providing bilingual foster care to Hispanic youths in the District. It is run by the Latin American Youth Center, a nonprofit organization located around the corner.
"The general problem in the city is there is not much alternative housing for language-minority kids," said Mai Fernandez, chief operating officer of the Latin American Youth Center.
The youth center, which receives federal, city and private funding, has tried to respond to the need for foster care for bilingual and other minority children in a number of ways. It helps train Latino families to take in some children. And it has opened two homes on 15th Street NW between Irving Street and Columbia Road for boys who are in the foster care system or who are homeless or runaways.
Now it hopes to expand those services even further. Two crumbling red-brick buildings on the same block are being rehabilitated to create homes for runaway or homeless girls and for teen mothers and their babies.
Brenda Donald Walker, director of the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, said only about 5 percent of the 2,700 children in foster care in the city are Hispanic.
"We want to have them in an environment that is going to be supportive and that is culturally responsive to their particular needs," she said.
That's the idea behind the youth center's "independent living program" in the former crack house. The renovated building is now home to four Latino and two African American youths, all 17 or 18 years old. They range from a Guatemalan immigrant who entered the home last year, speaking no English, to a youth who has been in foster care since he was 8. Walker said the city prefers family settings for foster care but those arrangements are not always possible.
The house is staffed round-the-clock by bilingual professionals from the Latin American Youth Center, including a counselor, case manager and career developer. They steer the youths through schooling, help them get jobs and teach them such skills as how to manage a budget. The house is funded through a $583,000 grant from the city.
"It's a very holistic approach," Fernandez said.
Down the street, young men in jeans swing sledgehammers at two red-brick buildings that were the former home of the youth center. They are scheduled to open in about a year as a bilingual home for runaway or homeless girls and a center for teen mothers.
"We could fill [them] as soon as we open," said Fernandez, saying that no equivalent bilingual facilities exist in the city. She is trying to line up city or federal funds for the projects.
The youth center has transformed yet another home on the same block, a former crack house that is now its art and media house. The building, painted in cheerful blocks of red, orange, blue and green, provides programs in photography, radio broadcasting, painting and other skills.
Youths in the foster care program can use the art and media house, and some attend the center's bilingual charter school nearby.
"It's like a mini-village," Walker said. "It's a really neat model."