On a windy, rainy afternoon last week, 15 youngsters, none old enough to drive a car, trekked down Maryland Avenue Northeast and packed into a small room for their weekly after-school — boys only — club meeting.
After passing out juice boxes and cracking more than a few jokes, the group settled down and began discussing some unfinished business. The subject these pre-teens chose to talk about? The Kobe Bryant sexual assault case and what good, healthy sex means to them.
Amid the chorus of comments, Dante, a bright-eyed 11-year-old boy with a loud laugh, called out simply, “They both have to agree to it.”
It was straightforward and honest, bringing nods of agreement all around from the club’s other members.
The club — which is dubbed Men of Strength and aims to change the dominant view of what it means to be a man in today’s society — is just one example of the type of programming that goes on at the Sasha Bruce House, a children’s outreach shelter in Northeast D.C.
While the Sasha Bruce House is a mere 10 blocks away from the Capitol steps, the glitz and glamour of Washington politics don’t shine that far down Maryland Avenue. However Sasha Bruce Youthworks, the organization that runs the house, has become a household name for local residents.
“We’re one of the larger and longest-lasting social service agencies in the city,” said Elizabeth Workman, a program director for the organization’s Zocalo Outreach — a name that comes from the Spanish word meaning “meeting place.”
Sasha Bruce Youthworks, now in its 30th year, provides street outreach, emergency shelters and long-term residential services. It also hosts youth support programs — such as Dante’s Men of Strength club, which was developed through the Men Can Stop Rape organization in D.C. — for thousands of children and their families.
Workman said the children who attend Sasha Bruce’s many programs live in the shadow of the Capitol but are somehow detached from it.
“Sometimes when you’re in a city, you don’t necessarily feel the focus of that city,” Workman said. “These kids don’t necessarily grow up thinking, ‘I’m in the home of democracy.’ It’s D.C. — they know they can get shot out on the street.”
A Visit From OMB
The Sasha Bruce House is a direct recipient of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, reauthorized by Congress late last month and signed into law Oct. 10. Although the $106 million funding authorization represented a victory for organizations such as Sasha Bruce, homelessness lobbyists still hold out hope that more can be done by their neighbors 10 blocks away.
“When I started doing national advocacy, I thought there was a huge gap in knowledge between what’s known on the Hill and what happens on a programmatic level,” said Mishaela Duran of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which lobbied for the runaway act. “It was very important to me to help close that gap.”
Duran, who volunteers for Sasha Bruce Youthworks, said one of the keys is getting lawmakers and Hill staffers to see for themselves what goes on at community-based programs such as Sasha Bruce.
Deborah Shore, founder and executive director of Sasha Bruce Youthworks, agreed: “We’re willing to get support in any way we can. But I think it’s pretty powerful when we can get people in positions of decision-making to see the work we do and to talk with the kids.”
This reauthorization cycle, Duran was able to bring the program examiner at the Office of Management and Budget to visit the Sasha Bruce House and see first-hand what the organization does.
Sasha Bruce Youthworks, which has 115 paid staff members and 75 volunteers, provided support to 1,200 young people in the District last year. It sponsors 15 programs based out of 10 sites throughout Northeast and Southeast D.C.
The organization takes its name from the daughter of former U.S. Ambassador and Under Secretary of State David Bruce. Her violent death inspired her family to donate funds in 1976 to support Shore’s efforts and create a youth shelter. Although David Bruce and his wife have both since died, the family remains actively involved in the organization.
The Sasha Bruce House represents the heart of the organization. Out back, children usually are playing on the basketball court, taking shots at a hoop with a broken backboard. Inside, the walls are decorated with collages, murals and hundreds of posters and flyers announcing meeting times and locations for dozens of different clubs. As a tutoring session takes place in the dining room, hip-hop music booms in the basement.
It’s also a youth shelter that last year provided a roof over 288 children who left — or were forced to leave — their homes for any number of reasons.
A Dearth of Hill Volunteers
The annual operating cost for Sasha Bruce Youthworks is about $4.8 million. About one-fourth of that covers street outreach, emergency shelter and long-term residential services — the three areas the runaway act specifically covers. This year the act will provide about $350,000 to Sasha Bruce Youthworks, leaving the organization to make up the rest of the cost in donations, local support and endowment funding.
Besides money, Shore said she’d like to see support from the Hill in other ways.
“We’re always looking for mentors and big siblings — it’s always very needed,” she said, noting that no Hill staffers currently volunteer at the house.
Workman added that Hill staffers could bring a unique perspective to the Sasha Bruce House.
“I think the connection they have — the youth, and the fact that they are aspiring somethings — they would be amazing role models for our young people to interact with,” she said. “It would just continue to open the doors for our young people in terms of knowledge and experience.”
Sasha Bruce’s administrative offices, separate from the Sasha Bruce House, are located at 741 Eighth St. SE. The organization’s 24-hour crisis intervention line is (202) 547-7777. For information about volunteer opportunities, call (202) 675-9340.