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Central Union Mission Returns To Downtown D.C.

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Central Union Mission moved to its present location at 1350 R Street NW after eminent domain forced the Mission to leave its original spot on C Street NW.
Rebecca Sheir
Central Union Mission moved to its present location at 1350 R Street NW after eminent domain forced the Mission to leave its original spot on C Street NW.

James Higden can hardly contain his excitement. He's a resident at Central Union Mission, a shelter and social service agency in Washington, D.C. He's excited because his home is undergoing a reconstruction.

"It's almost like waiting for Christmas," he says, "to know that they're going to have all these additional services, they're going to be in an area that's more centrally located — it's just exciting to watch!"

Central Union Mission has been reaching out to D.C.'s homeless, hungry and hurting since 1884. The Mission started downtown, with a shelter on C Street Northwest, just off Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Mission had to relocate about a century later, when the city began restoring Pennsylvania Avenue and making way for Metro. Since then, the Mission has been stationed at 14th and R, not far from Logan Circle and the U Street Corridor.

Next year, Central Union Mission will move again, back to the heart of Washington, D.C., just a block from Union Station. Builders say the shelter's construction should be done by July 2013.

Pastor James Lewis, Central Union Mission's senior director of ministries, says the location at 65 Massachusetts Avenue NW is ideal. "If you drive around this area, there are plenty of people that are homeless," he says. "We offer them a respite."

Once construction is complete, the Mission will take over the historic, 131-year-old Gales School: a District-owned building which has become so decrepit through the years, steel girders were erected just to keep it standing.

More room for more services

Higden, a 50-something, fourth-generation Washingtonian, came to Central Union Mission's present location after years of wrestling with anxiety and depression, "and it's a much better wrestler than I am," he says.

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.

"We have about 86 beds at this facility that we use to accommodate veterans and our regular overnight guests, plus our work program men," Rev. Cook says.

He's thrilled that the facility on Massachusetts Avenue will nearly double that capacity. Not only that, but the new building will accommodate guests 24 hours a day. Right now, overnight guests must arrive at 1 p.m. for intake, and then leave after breakfast the next morning. That'll all change at the new location, where the men won't have to split right after breakfast.

"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," says. Rev. Cook.

But he also says they're up for those challenges. And he's not alone. Lobby manager Philip Ford agrees "it's going to be an adjustment, but we're prepared."

As lobby manager of the Mission, Ford says he makes "sure that the guests coming are taken care of and put in the right direction." And actually, back in 2004, Ford himself was one of those guests.

"I never was homeless," he says, "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.

Helping more people

When asked how it feels to go from being someone in the program to someone who's helping make the programs happen, Ford says "it's an awesome feeling because the guys see 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.

"On our building, it says 'Come Unto Me.,'" she says. "And I think that we'll have it on our new building, too. 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 you might want to call "streetwalkers," Johnson says.), now the area is bursting with snazzy retail, restaurants and residences. And Johnson applauds the progress, "but you know that people we serve could not afford anything around here now," she says.

So, naturally, she's a big fan of relocating downtown, in hopes of getting more "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. Executive director David Treadwell says the Mission will spend more than $13 million on this renovation.

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," Treadwell explains. "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.

"For those that are homeless, for anybody, if you've been to the dentist lately, that's immeasurable for those services to be available!" he says with a smile.

Pastor Lewis says he's especially pleased because Central Union Mission has had its share of trouble finding a home in D.C., thanks to what he calls "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.

[Music: "Shelter" by Ray LaMontagne from Trouble]

Photos: Central Union Mission


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