The first job Schroeder Stribling had after college was at the last place most people would want to be: the Westborough State Hospital, a public psychiatric facility in Massachusetts. She had been an intern there earlier, while earning a graduate degree in social work from Smith College.
"My job was to make a connection with people," Stribling said. As a therapist in the hospital's acute unit, she performed diagnostic evaluations, planned treatments, worked with patients as they weathered their crises and — hopefully — saw them eventually discharged.
Working there, Stribling said, "was often profoundly moving. Sometimes it was sad. It felt triumphant when you did manage to make an alliance with someone."
Stribling is still making those connections and witnessing those hard-won triumphs. She's the chief executive of N Street Village, an organization that helps women who are homeless in the District. It is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand.
Although it has N Street in its name — and was born at 14th and N streets NW — the Village provides a broad collection of vital services across the city, from overnight shelters for women who carry their lives with them to addiction recovery services, from a day center where women can shower to résumé-writing workshops for those ready to reenter the workplace.
The Village grew out of work at Luther Place Memorial Church in Thomas Circle. The Lutheran church dates to 1873. A century later, its 14th Street neighborhood was economically depressed, rife with prostitution, drug use and homelessness. People without a home often slept on the church's steps. Luther Place's then-pastor, John Steinbruck, and his wife, Erna, invited them inside.
Steinbruck was a force to be reckoned with, forcing the city to confront its problems. (He would regularly contact the White House to implore that food left over from banquets be sent to shelters like his. His requests were ignored.)
What started as a warm place for homeless women to sleep grew over the years. Church-owned buildings on N Street were converted into housing, starting a process that continues. N Street Village oversees five locations across the District, offering temporary and permanent housing, along with programs for women who are dealing with trauma, addiction, mental health issues and medical problems.
Today, N Street Village serves about 2,000 women annually.
Stribling joined the charity in 2003 as its program director. In 2007, she completed a program in nonprofit management at Georgetown University and three years later was promoted to the top job at the Village.
I asked Stribling if there's a difference between a women's shelter and a men's shelter. She said there's a unique sense of connectedness that arises among clients at the Village. "It's also the case that almost all [clients] — and I would wager all, depending on how you define it — have experienced trauma of some form," she said. "Many women have experienced trauma that became quite directly the reason for their homelessness — women who fled violent situations — or they've experienced violence in the course of their addiction."
Because of that, the people who work at N Street Village strive to make it a place that offers not just tangible physical comforts — a meal, a bed — but also a less tangible one: a connection on a soothing, personal level.
Said Stribling: "If I walked in today and what you had to offer me was a shower, a meal — whatever — but you did not also offer me some sense that you saw me as a dignified, individual human being, I'm much less likely to be able to take that initial step forward."
Today's urban crises can seem unnervingly familiar to those of us who remember the 1980s, a time when such harsh terms as "street people" and "bag lady" were thrown about. I asked Stribling if it was difficult for nonprofit organizations such as N Street Village to move the needle, so to speak, on the root causes of homelessness.
Homelessness, she said, is just the tip of an iceberg that's held up by a complex foundation of long-standing social, racial and economic inequities, along with the choices we make as a country on such things as housing policy.
So, yes, it's hard to move that big needle.
But at N Street Village, "the individual person's needle goes like that," Stribling said, sweeping her forearm in a 90-degree arc. "At least one person every day. That's worth seeing and is really remarkable. This is a pretty joyful place to be around."
You can help spread the joy. N Street Village is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand. To support its vital work with a tax-deductible donation, visit posthelpinghand.com. To donate 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, D.C. 20005.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.