MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Sabri Ben-Achour in for Rebecca Sheir. This week we're talking about house and home. And, as we've heard, thousands of people in this region don't the privilege of either, which is why D.C.'s given birth to institutions like the one we'll hear about next, which actually is about to move to a new home. Central Union Mission is the district's oldest social service agency. The mission has been helping out D.C.'s homeless and hungry since 1884.
MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
It started downtown with a shelter on C Street Northwest, just off of Pennsylvania Avenue. The Mission had to relocate about a century later, when the city began restoring Pennsylvania Avenue and making way for Metro. And since then, the Mission has been stationed at 14th and R, not far from Logan Circle. And, as Rebecca Sheir tells us, Central Union Mission is gearing up for yet another relocation, this time back to the heart of Washington, D.C.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
For Pastor James Lewis, Central Union Mission's senior director of ministries, homecoming sounds an awful lot like this.
PASTOR JAMES LEWIS
We are really kind of returning home coming back downtown. Union Station is only one block away. And if you drive around this area, there are plenty of people that are homeless. And we offer them a respite.
Reverend Lewis and I are decked out in hardhats amidst the buzzing construction at 65 Massachusetts Avenue Northwest, site of the historic 131-year-old Gales School. The building itself seems rather fragile. I mean every time I go by I see those steel beams. Are they holding up the building?
MR. TOM PHELPS
Yeah, the framing that's on the outside of the building were all installed to stabilize the building and keep everything intact as it goes through this transformation.
Tom Phelps is the senior superintendent of this transformation, which began in September. Phelps says they hope to turn the decrepit old school, which is currently owned by the D.C. government, into a state of the art mission by July 2013. And one of the mission's current residents, James Higden…
MR. JAMES HIGDEN
It's almost like waiting for Christmas.
…can hardly contain his excitement.
To know that you're gonna have all these additional services. They're gonna be in a area that's more centrally located. It's just exciting to watch.
I spoke with the 50-something, fourth-generation Washingtonian at Central Union Mission's present location over on 14th and R. Higden says he came here after years of wrestling with anxiety and depression.
And it's a much better wrestler than I am.
Now, he's in a Mission program that houses men while they search for work. And as Rev. Rutherford Cook points out -- he's the one who runs the Overnight Guest Ministry -- these guys are just some of the Mission's overnight residents.
REV. RUTHERFORD COOK
We have about 86 beds at this facility that we use to accommodate veterans and our regular overnight guests, plus our work program men.
So Rev. Cook is thrilled that at the new facility on Massachusetts Avenue…
We will almost double that capacity.
Not only that, but the new building will accommodate guests 24 hours a day. See, right now…
Our regular overnight guests have to be here at 1:00 for intake.
And, the following morning at 7:00…
They have to be out of the building and then they have to come back at 1:00 for intake again.
That'll all change at the new location, where the men won't have to split right after breakfast.
So that's going to introduce some, shall I say, challenges to us, in terms of staffing up to be able to accommodate a larger population of homeless men, and for servicing them over a larger period of time.
But Rev. Cooks says they're up for those challenges. And he's not alone.
MR. PHILIP FORD
It's going to be an adjustment, but we're prepared.
Philip Ford is Central Union Mission's lobby manager.
Making sure that the guests coming in are taken care of and put in the right direction.
And actually, back in 2004, Ford himself was one of those guests.
Never was homeless, but I was an addict for about 18 years. Wife, kids, house, the white-picket fence and all that. But I had a drug problem.
In 2005, Ford completed the Mission's Spiritual Transformation Program, which offers a year to a year-and-a-half of counseling, education, job training and work therapy around the Mission. Since then he's been employed at the Mission in a bunch of different capacities, including executive assistant to the executive director.
How does it feel to go from being someone in the program to someone who's helping make the programs happen?
It's an awesome feeling because the guys see that I was once where they sit. So it gives them a beacon of hope.
And that hope, says director of social work, Shirley Johnson, is what Central Union Mission is all about, no matter its physical location.
MS. SHIRLEY JOHNSON
On our building, it says, Come Unto Me. I think we'll have it on our new building, too. Come Unto Me. We're not saying that we can help the whole world, but we certainly try to help everybody who comes in this door.
What's so wonderful about the new building, she says, is a whole new population will be able to come in that door. You see, while 14th and R used to be an ideal site for a Mission…
I remember when 14th Street had, what we might want to call streetwalkers.
Now the area is bursting with snazzy retail, restaurants and residences, which don't get me wrong, Johnson applauds.
But you know that people that we serve could not afford anything around here now.
So, naturally, she's a big fan of relocating downtown.
We'll get more, maybe, support from businesses and people in the neighborhood who realize that the Mission is providing a service that's good for everybody.
But here's the thing, providing that service at the new facility won't come without a cost.
MR. DAVID TREADWELL
We will spend over $13 million on this renovation.
This is Executive Director David Treadwell. And as he points out, while the District will be charging the Mission a dollar a year for rent, as far as all this construction goes…
The District will have to put no funds into it. We have a lease of 40 years plus a 25-year extension, so this will be of service to downtown Washington for many years to come.
And back at the Gales School on Massachusetts Avenue, Pastor James Lewis says he looks forward to the additional things that service will entail come 2013, like on-site legal, medical and dental assistance.
And for those that are homeless, for anybody, if you've been to the dentist lately, that's immeasurable for those services to be available.
Pastor Lewis says he's especially pleased because Central Union Mission has had its share of trouble finding a home in D.C.
There's a process called NIMBY, Not in my backyard. The Mission has gone through years of that.
But all of that appears to be over. And now that the Mission will have a stable, solid home of its own, it can devote itself even more to helping Washingtonians find the exact same thing. I'm Rebecca Sheir.
You can check out photos of the Mission's current and future homes at our website, metroconnection.org.
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