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Bridge housing can be the link between homelessness and a home

Chandra Dawson is the chief permanent housing officer for the District charity Friendship Place. At Valley Place, an apartment building in Southeast D.C., people who once experienced homelessness can prepare for their own place. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

A bed isn’t a house and a house isn’t a home. And when a person experiencing homelessness leaves the streets, the streets don’t magically leave the person. Just ask Chandra Dawson.

“It takes a minute just to normalize,” said Dawson, the chief permanent housing officer for Friendship Place, a nonprofit working to end homelessness in the District.

Living in a tent in a park is awful, but it allows a person some amount of control. Getting your own apartment — getting “leased up,” in the parlance of housing groups such as Friendship Place — is wonderful, but it can set a person up to fail.

Said Dawson: “They've had the rug pulled out so many times.”

That’s where Valley Place comes in. It’s a year-old apartment building in Southeast D.C. that provides what’s known as bridge housing. This is temporary housing — as long as 90 days, but sometimes longer — for people who have been living in shelters or on the streets.

Valley Place provides a sojourn between being homeless and being leased up. It has space for 52 adult participants, in one-, two- and three-bedroom, fully furnished apartments. Some residents have roommates. Some units are ADA-compliant.

It’s a safe space, but it’s something else, too: a classroom. “When you move out, your apartment will look very similar to this,” is what Dawson tells residents.

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For some residents, Valley Place is the first time they’ve ever lived alone.

“They ran away in their late teens and been on the streets for years,” Dawson said.

They must learn to navigate unfamiliar spaces: their own closets (where they can store their possessions), their own kitchens and bathrooms (which must be cleaned), and a laundry room.

Simple things can seem mysterious — a thermostat, for example.

On the streets, Dawson said, “I adjust my temperature by the layers of my clothes.”

Some participants find the prospect of getting leased up “terrifying,” Dawson said. They worry: What happens if I fail?

Friendship Place is there to help keep clients from failing. Most participants have two case managers, the social workers who help clients formulate a plan for the future. Participants are required to interact at least three times a week with their case managers, Dawson said.

Some of the residents have jobs, something Dawson says surprises some people.

“Everyone assumes that homelessness means no income,” she said. “We have the working poor. In the District of Columbia it is not uncommon to work — and to work full-time — and still not have the ability to afford rent.”

Valley Place, Dawson said, “chips away at some of the stress of trying to maintain a job while experiencing homelessness. I can hang my clothes up. I can take a shower and not wonder when I wake up where I can bathe. It offers me protection. My colleagues don't have to know I'm homeless.”

Valley Place is a new pilot program managed by Friendship Place, in partnership with the Interagency Council on Homelessness and the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. It is overseen by the District’s Department of Human Services. Community of Hope manages similar bridge housing in its Girard Street NW building.

The residents aren’t the only ones learning. Dawson and her colleagues are learning, too. A lot of the Valley Place participants came from tent encampments that have become common in the city, she said. These may be unsightly reminders of our nation’s housing crisis, our mental health crisis, our income-inequality crisis, but to those who live in them, they’re something else: communities.

Moving to bridge housing, Dawson said, provides “the added safety of housing, but there is a loss. Bridge housing also has to help fill that social gap in terms of community and companionship.”

So Valley Place has a community room where residents socialize, play cards, watch TV, enjoy game nights.

Dawson said she is constantly amazed and humbled by the resiliency of those she serves, people who have not had the benefits she’s had in terms of a supportive family and a quality education.

“It's remarkable to watch,” she said. “It takes a lot to get up each morning and put one foot in front of another when you're really not sure where you're going to land.”

Helping people put one foot in front of the other is what Friendship Place does. You can participate in that effort by giving to The Washington Post Helping Hand, our annual fundraising drive. To contribute online by credit card, visit posthelpinghand.com. To donate by mail, send a check to Friendship Place, 3655 Calvert St. NW, Washington, DC 20007.

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