The Southeast Neighborhood House is bringing new life to the Anacostia community it serves. From the street, the block-long complex of building -- one red, one white, one green -- adds up to a reflection of the community surrounding them. In the past, the Southeast Neighborhood House alternately appeared scruffy or neat, like the neighborhood rowhouses, but a welcome sight this summer has been the teams of teen-agers making the needed repairs. Once again it seems that the Southeast Neighborhood House and Anacostia are regaining their health and coping.
Images of what a typical slum neighborhood is supposed to look like are destined to fail when compared with the Anacostia neighborhood around the Southeast Neighborhood House. It is true that the nearby community is mostly black and low income. But the poverty, if it can correctly be called poverty, is not actually material poverty. Most of the apartment houses and rowhouses are habitable. People on the street wear clean clothes and probably eat meals regularly. The poverty that persists is a spiritual malaise -- sound familiar -- that has little to do with faith in America and very much to do with ignorance right here in Washington. If knowledge is wealth, then the majorigy of these people are ferociously poor -- ignorant of the wealth of personal services available to them, free, through community organizations. What they lack is information.
But this question inevitably arises: When there are plenty, it not too many, welfare programs already in existence for the poor, what is the need for a place like the Southeast Neighborhood House?
In spite of federal largesse, especially in the late 1960s, a neighborhood social-service agency adds a vital and invaluable ingredient: people. It is one thing for a needy family to await a welfare check at the first of each month and something altogether different for them to meet their beneficiary face-to-face as often as they wish. A conversation, however intimate or brief, with a visiting nurse or counselor is deeply important.
In a low-income neighborhood, where even such basic community services as trash collection and mail delivery can be haphazard, that kind of personal, dependable communication not only sustains a person's pride but also creates a link between people within the community, which -- ideally -- will endure and strengthen as long as the community itself survives.
The Southeast Neighborhood House is a non-profit community organization that provides a comprehensive community-development program for the area's residents of all ages. Through a building-trades program, for instance, teen-agers can get classroom instructions and on-the-job training in painting and carpentry. While contractors were hired to make the major repairs the Southeast Neighborhood House needed, such as plumbing, electricity and heating, neighborhood youths enclosed a porch themselves. What is especially gratifying about these and other jobs the organization coordinates -- in this case the partner is Mayor Barry's Summer Jobs for Youth program -- is the fact that these are not just stack-the-box-type of summer jobs. Learning skills like these is not all that makes a summer job a truly useful experience; more important, these kinds of responsible jobs really do make a difference. Since the problems area youth face are not just a visible, summertime problem -- as staff writer Juan Williams pointed out in a recent article ("Jobs That Just Get Kids Off the Street") -- however, I would be even happier to see the expansion of similar trades programs in cooperation with the city's business on a year-round basis.
For the elderly, the Southeast Neighborhood House offers a nutrition and geriatrics program among a host of additional services tailored to fit their needs. There are six nutrition sites in Southeast, Northeast and at D.C. Village, which, incidentally, feed more than 500 people daily. That is no small feat.
The Southeast Neighborhood House receives most of its funding from the United Way, but the United Planning Organization, D.C. Office on Aging, D.D. Superior Court and the D.C. Department of Manpower (CETA) also contribute funds. Although public funding of community organizations like the Southeast Neighborhood House is a relatively new phenomenon, the idea of a neighborhood settlement house is at least a century old, having begun in the last 19th century with Jane Addams' Hull-House in Chicago. The Southeast Neighborhood House was founded in 1929, when the Friendship House still refused black membership. Then, as it remains today, the theory was to offer a range of social services to the area's poor, black residents of all ages.
In 1966, the Southeast Neighborhood House moved from Capitol Hill to Anacostia. During the 1960s, displacement of blacks on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in the city because of urban renewal made this move necessary. Laplois Ashford, the director of the Southeast Neighborhood House since February 1978, said that even though the social-service agency was well-funded at that time, it was poorly managed. Since 1978, Ashford has restaffed and reorganized it. At one point the ceiling in his own office collapsed on his head. But through all the troubles, Ashford, the Southeast Neighborhood House and the Anacostia community persist.
The Southeast Neighborhood House is achieving its founding goal, and there is every reason to hope for its continued success and vitality. Of course, like any community organization, it needs more money, more trained staff, more equipment. Just as important, however, it needs more involvement on the part of the community it serves, especially volunteers. The road to community development in Anacostia, as anywhere, is a two-way street.