Sharon Hart, left, a community organizer at N Street Village, and Miya Walker, a day services advocate, both work with women who come to the nonprofit organization’s Bethany Women’s Day Center. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

There’s an amazing calculus at work at the Bethany Women’s Day Center at N Street Village. It’s a simple formula encoded with powerful potential: five activities plus a chore can equal a new life.

The center, on N Street NW between 13th and 14th streets, serves women who don’t have homes. Some may be living in shelters. Some may be trying to survive on the streets. All are welcome at Bethany Women’s Day Center from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays.

And if they follow that formula — five activities and a chore — they can come on weekends, too.

Many shelters are closed during the day. That’s why a place like Bethany’s (as many of the ladies call it) is so important. Part of the appeal is the food: breakfast at 8, lunch at noon and a snack at 3:30. But there’s a lot more.

When a woman comes to the center for the first time, she’ll be welcomed by someone like Miya Walker, an N Street Village day services advocate. Walker explains that if a woman attends five activities and completes one chore over the course of the week, she can visit the center on the weekend as well.


Louise Coates prepares salad for lunch at N Street Village’s day center. Women without homes can get free meals there. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

“A lot of women say they don’t plan on coming on the weekends,” Walker told me. But when she says the five-plus-one arrangement also entitles a woman to use the free laundry facilities, many change their mind.

The chores are basic: wipe the tables in the dining room after a meal, sweep the floor, pick up any debris that’s been blown into the N Street Village courtyard. It’s not a heavy lift.

It’s the activities that are especially appealing. Walker typically plans the welcome session to end just before 10.

“I tell them: ‘There’s a group starting at 10. This would count for the first of your five.’ ”

Activities include aerobics, yoga, meditation, art, biofeedback, poetry and more. There are also 12-step program meetings. (An activity called “interpretive dance” wasn’t well attended. The name was changed to “interpretive movement” and now plenty of people come.)

Posted on the wall are the day center’s rules, common-sense things designed to reduce friction. Women can’t be a danger to themselves or others. They can’t be drunk or on drugs. (Many clients are in recovery and don’t need those triggers.)

Walker tells newcomers about the other things the day center offers. There are showers and free toiletries.

“They like the travel-size toiletries,” Walker said. Clients who may be toting everything they own around in bags don’t want the extra weight.

The day center strives to have a lot of different brands on offer. For many women, the simple act of choosing one type of shower gel, shampoo or lotion over another may be the only bit of agency they get that day. (There are some who think homeless people should take what they’re given. Not at N Street Village.)

Every Thursday, a doctor sees patients in an upstairs wellness center. Every second and fourth Wednesday there’s a dentist. A couple of times a month, a chiropractor and a massage therapist come. Over-the-counter medication is available.

There’s WiFi, too, and laptops in the Comcast Learning and Technology Lab, where computer classes are held.

About 60 to 90 women use the center daily. The number varies based on the weather and on whether clients have gone through all the money in their monthly benefits check.

Walker said that many women are curious about the Village’s permanent supportive housing. She or another N Street Village person will fill out a Vulnerability Index-Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool, or VI-SPDAT. It’s a survey that asks questions about a client’s life and needs that helps determine the next step.

On a recent morning, about a dozen women were eating pancakes in the day center’s dining room. In the kitchen, Louise Coates chopped up lettuce for a salad before heading to her job at a shoestore in Georgetown. She came to N Street Village as a client and now volunteers there. (Coates’s salads are especially popular, recognizable by the beets and chickpeas she likes to add.)

In a multipurpose room, seated women were stretching in yoga poses. In the afternoon, a knitting and crochet class would be filling the craft room down the hall.

All the women keep their own activity sheets, filling them in and then getting them signed by an N Street Village staffer.

Five activities and a chore: It’s a bit of structure in lives that may not have had any. And it’s a way to invite the women, little by little, to become part of N Street Village.

You can help

N Street Village is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, our annual charity campaign. You can donate by visiting posthelpinghand.com. To give by mail, make a check payable to N Street Village and send it to N Street Village, Attn: Helping Hand, 1333 N St. NW, Washington, DC 20005.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.