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Abandoned House Transformed into Haven for Homeless Teens

This dilapidated abandoned building in Washington, DC, will soon house homeless teenagers. (R. Skirble/VOA)
This dilapidated abandoned building in Washington, DC, will soon house homeless teenagers. (R. Skirble/VOA)
A dilapidated and abandoned building in Washington, D.C., is being transformed into a haven for homeless teens. The house is a gift to Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a nonprofit that works with homeless young people in the nation’s capital.

Blitz Build Day

It is Blitz Build Day and volunteers in town for the American Institute for Architects annual meeting have adopted the house as a service project. Dressed in orange plastic hard hats and work boots, they haul lumber, hammer floor boards, install windows and dig a garden.

As she takes a break from work on a ceiling beam, Gwen Berlekamp from Ohio says the labor can make a difference.

“When you make improvements to communities, it has a ripple effect. So other people in the neighborhood feel better about living here, the children have a better neighborhood to grow up in.”

Learning job and life skills

Bedrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen, living and dining areas begin to take shape in the two-story house. With so many volunteers, work gets done fast, which is the way Kevin Vines,19, likes it.

Vines has been on the job for several months as part of Sasha Bruce YouthBuild, a vocational and life skills program. “I’m learning carpentry,” he says. “That’s what I like to do, hands-on work.”

The high school dropout came into YouthBuild unemployed and in trouble with the law.

Construction trainer Marcus Bruce is proud of the progress Vines has made. “Kevin has shown a lot of leadership and is good with his hands. I expect him to be a big shining star for this program in the future because he has all the right tools.”

Adopting a work ethic

But Bruce says it hasn’t been easy. “We deal with the kids nobody else wants to deal with. When the kids come to us they have all kinds of issues, personal problems. We show them love and help them learn to love themselves.”

Bruce says that love comes as they gain skills on their job building the house, while also focusing on building character. “What I’m interested in is that they have a strong work ethic because they can take that work ethic and become anything they want to be in life.”

Vines takes that lesson very seriously and is quick to rattle off credentials that make him a good hire.

“I am a respectful young man. I can be on time. The orders you tell me to do I will do," he says. "You will not have to tell me again, and I will get the project done.”

Getting the job done

Today Vines is getting the job done hand-in-hand with other teens enrolled in the program and with volunteers from outside their community.

Sasha Bruce Youthwork director Debby Shore says it’s a wonderful opportunity to build more than a house. “We are building relationships here that make such a difference for young people. Many of these young people feel very alone in the world. They don’t understand that there are people out there that do care about their future and their lives.”

Sasha Bruce Youthwork's Debby Shore explains why teen homelessness exists

For much of the morning Tom Schell, from Florida, has been building shelves to go in the greenhouse in the back of the property. Working on the project has put the plight of the homeless in America into sharper focus for him.

“I know that, at any given time, the types of situations that these [kids are] in, could happen to my kids," Schell says. "It could happen to me. Look at the economy and the way things are going now. Everybody is vulnerable, and I think it is really important to be on the front end of giving. It's making me feel as though I am doing something not only for humanity, but it boils back down to my own kids and my family someday.”

By the end of the day the house is closer to becoming a home for eight homeless youth. Sasha Bruce director Shore says the less time those young people spend languishing on the streets, the more likely it is that they will finish school, get a job and not be homeless as adults.