There are four curfew levels at Sasha Bruce Youthwork’s independent-living house on Capitol Hill. The earliest curfew is 8 p.m. Residents who have a job can stay out later. When they show that they can make good decisions about their time, their curfew is relaxed even more.
“As they demonstrate they’re able to follow the rules and regulations, they’re able to write a letter to their case manager explaining why they should be able to stay out later,” said Teal Cole, program manager at the house. “You can’t really come and go as you please. Some struggle. Some adjust quite well.”
“I was an adjuster,” said Samaria Holton, 20, who moved into the house on East Capitol Street NE in May. “I didn’t want to get kicked out. I needed to sleep somewhere.”
Samaria was 18 when her mother asked her to leave the family home in Northeast Washington. They’d argued for years. “We just didn’t know how to communicate with each other at the time,” Samaria says. “It was hard on her as a single parent.”
Samaria did what a lot of young people in that situation do. She started couch-surfing, spending time at the homes of friends, moving from house to house, apartment to apartment.
Whenever she could, Samaria tried to pitch in with groceries, but eventually she would begin to feel like an imposition. And that situation — an extra person in what was typically an already crowded and overstretched home — wasn’t sustainable. Samaria entered a homeless shelter.
Then she found out about Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand. Founded in 1974, the District-based nonprofit helps teenagers out of homelessness.
In May, Samaria moved to the Sasha Bruce independent-living program for young people ages 17 to 20. She’s one of eight clients in the house. Most are working or in school. They begin each morning by talking with a case manager about their plans, big and small.
Samaria is a high school graduate who dropped out of college when it became too expensive. Last summer, she joined AmeriCorps, the national community service program. She earns a small salary as a school mediator, taking public transportation to two middle schools and a high school in Montgomery County. She serves as a receptive audience when feuding students come in to discuss their beefs. Often, just hearing each other out is enough to ease the tension.
Teal Cole, the program manager, stresses that the key word in Sasha Bruce’s independent-living program is the first one: independent. The curfew might seem like an annoyance, but navigating it and negotiating it can be instructive.
“We do want them to guide their own lives,” she said. “It’s my belief they need to spearhead what they want to do: ‘I know I need to get up for work in the morning. It might not be such a good idea to stay up late the night before.’ ”
Every decision, she said, needs to be looked at through the same filter: How is that going to affect my future, whether negatively or positively?
When Samaria completes her AmeriCorps service in August, she will have paid off her college debt. About then, her time with Sasha Bruce will be drawing to an end. The independent-living program typically lasts 18 months. She hopes to find a job that pays about $15 an hour, an affordable apartment and a reasonably priced college where she can earn a degree in social work.
“When I ended up homeless and ended up here, I thought maybe this is my role,” Samaria said. “Maybe I had my [homeless] experience so when I become a social worker I can connect with the kids I’m working with.”
Samaria feels her life has improved since she’s been with Sasha Bruce Youthwork. Something else has improved, too: her relationship with her mother.
“I speak to my mom almost every day now,” she said. “It’s better between us. I’m more open with her. I’m more understanding. I guess I was really stuck in my feelings and what I was going through. I didn’t want to hear her. Now I have a space to really relax, and it’s like I can hear her now. And she can hear me, too.”
Every year, Sasha Bruce Youthwork reaches about 1,500 young people through its residential, outreach and community programs. To make a donation in support of this work, go to posthelpinghand.com. To give by mail, send a check payable to “Sasha Bruce Youthwork” to: Sasha Bruce Youthwork, 741 Eighth St. SE, Washington, D.C. 20003. Attention: James Beck.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.