Pam Lieber outside the Sasha Bruce Youthwork office on Eighth Street SE. She runs a drop-in center for homeless young people. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Since it opened in March, the Sasha Bruce Youthwork drop-in center on Eighth Street SE has been attracting the tired and the cold, the hungry and the dirty. It’s a place where homeless youths can take a shower, wash their clothes, get a free meal and safely take a nap.

The center is normally open weekdays only, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., but Pam Lieber, the Sasha Bruce social worker who runs the center, is from Philadelphia, and when the Redskins played her beloved Eagles in October, she opened its doors on a rare Sunday.

In they came: young people who spend the nights in abandoned buildings, who ride the Metro during the day to stay warm, who panhandle at Union Station or Gallery Place. They gathered at the townhouse near the Marine Barracks and ate and laughed and watched on TV as the Redskins won.

It was fun, but something still bothered Angel, a 20-year-old client who started going to the center in September.

“There was a man, he couldn’t come in,” said Angel, whom I met not long ago at the drop-in center. The man was homeless, but, she said, “he was too old.”

The drop-in center is for people younger than 24. It provides immediate, temporary sanctuary for young people who are living on the streets.

If kids trust the drop-in center — see it as a comfortable place staffed by understanding, nonjudgmental adults — they may avail themselves of Sasha Bruce services that can help them stabilize their lives: substance-abuse counseling, HIV testing, mental-health care, housing referrals, GED tutoring and job training.

Every Sasha Bruce client has a different story, but what they have in common is the harsh reality of navigating the streets. Some have slept in “bandos,” their word for abandoned houses. Others have traded sexual favors for a place to sleep, considering that the lesser of two evils.

Antonio, 21, said he and his mother had been homeless from time to time when he was little. Now, after a fire at their house, he was homeless again.

His mother had moved in with his godmother, but as that house was already filled with that woman’s children and grandchildren, there really wasn’t room for him.

“As long as my mother’s good, I don’t care,” he said.

Jaquilia, 23, had recently taken a warehouse job, sorting packages on the overnight shift. The punishing hours were perfect, she said, because it meant she didn’t actually need an apartment, which she couldn’t afford anyway. During the day, she could go to the Sasha Bruce drop-in center or ride the Metro.

“I slept on the train a couple of times,” she said. “I ain’t gonna lie.”

“Me, too,” Angel said. “All the way to the end.”

Angel, Jaquilia and Antonio all envisioned a better future: work, their own places, more stable families than the ones they’d been raised in. Angel, who’s due in June, imagined herself strolling through a park with her baby.

The Sasha Bruce Youthwork drop-in center gave them a safe space in which to catch their breath and plan for these futures.

“Sasha Bruce gives you the arm,” said Jaquilia, who was prone to metaphor. “You just got to get the head. You got to build something.”

Angel elaborated. “I have limbs,” she said. “I don’t have my feet yet.”

Antonio weighed in. “Sasha Bruce is not gonna give you what you want,” he said. “It’s gonna give you what you need.”

“It’s so sad to leave,” Angel said of the drop-in center. “When you leave here, you don’t know where your next meal is. When you come in here every day, you feel like, ‘All right, I made it to the next day.’ ”

Angel thought about that man from October, the one who was out on Eighth Street while she and the others watched the football game inside. The homeless youngsters fixed a plate of food and took it out to him.

“We watched him eat it,” Angel said. “It felt good to help someone.”

Helping Hand

Angel’s anecdote resonated because it showed me how someone so accustomed to needing help was moved by being able to offer it. I hope you can offer some help, too, in the form of a gift to Sasha Bruce Youthwork.

To make a tax-deductible donation, visit posthelpinghand.com. To donate by mail, make a check payable to “Sasha Bruce Youthwork” and mail it to: Sasha Bruce Youthwork, 741 Eighth St. SE, Washington, D.C. 20003. Attention: James Beck.

We’re running out of time. The Washington Post Helping Hand fundraising drive ends Jan. 6. We are just about halfway to our goal of $225,000. Finally: The drop-in center could use a sturdy washer and dryer. Send me an email if you might be able to donate one.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.