Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Kristi Whitfield is fairly adept at chess, but last month, she admits, she “got trounced several times” by a young man who was once a middle-school champ and has since aged out of foster care.

“My victory was that he beat me in more moves than he predicted,” Whitfield says, with a laugh. “That was my bragging rights.”

Whitfield, the Downtown Business Improvement District’s public space operations director, faced off with her opponent at a new drop-in center for homeless teens and young adults. It’s a pilot program being hosted at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, at 945 G St. NW, each Monday evening until mid-November. While the church provides the space—for up to about 50 people—at a low cost, the BID and Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a local organization devoted to ending youth homelessness, provide the programming and services. All three bring volunteers.

The center quietly opened on Aug. 15, welcoming more than 30 people. Coordinators say participation has remained steady over the past few weeks, with new faces here and there, mostly African-American and older than 16.

The pilot is the latest among a constellation of initiatives to combat homelessness in D.C., tailored to residents who fall just on either side of 20. Homelessness for these young men and women can look a little different than it might for a veteran or an entire family: Someone may be evicted from home after coming out, or no longer be eligible for child social services. Conducted last August, the District’s inaugural survey of homeless youth found more than 300 young people without permanent housing. More than 40 percent of them identified as LGBTQ. 

The drop-in center offers free meals, HIV testing, and referrals to services like counseling. But it also gives youth who gather near Gallery Place and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library a place to rest and socialize. There are movies and board games and conversation. 

“It’s a space for them to vent and think clearly,” says Pam Lieber, a program manager at Sasha Bruce who oversees the pilot and the nonprofit’s regular drop-in center on Barracks Row, which opened in February. “They’re so full of all this stuff, and sometimes just need to get it out so they can even start thinking about breaking this huge problem down into pieces they can solve.”

The First Congregational drop-in center is open every Monday from roughly 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. So far, the groups have screened blockbuster action flicks like Batman v Superman (a “huge hit,” Lieber says) and supplied games like Uno and cards. To get the word out, Sasha Bruce trained BID and church staff on outreach, with an eye toward homeless youth. Many of them feel isolated and long for contact, Sasha Bruce founder Deborah Shore explains.

Though the pilot itself is still young, organizers say success will be measured by the number of youth who continue to come. Ultimately, says Downtown BID executive director Neil Albert, it will also depend on connecting youth to housing, employment, and other opportunities. Albert, a former deputy mayor of Adrian Fenty, says the center is “a labor of love.” He saw a need for it downtown, where homelessness is most visible.

“We’re hoping the pilot grows into something we can implement year-round,” he says. “What we need to do for next summer, and after, is figure out the true cost and how to fundraise for it.”

Part of that money could come through the church. Rev. James D. Ross II, who oversees the drop-in center for First Congregational, says an offering to be collected this month will go toward Sasha Bruce for program support. Members have also expressed interest in volunteering. Ross notes that the number of early participants shows the “huge need” for more services, adding that the pilot furnishes a model for organizations to facilitate similar activities on other nights.

“Young people, regardless of their situation, yearn for the same things: a sense of belonging, a sense of community, a sense of support,” the reverend says.

Some may simply want to recall moments of life buried by time, like playing a game of chess.

“It made me feel hopeful that the space, even on the first night, was offering what we wanted, which was a respite,” Whitfield says. “Somewhere you can come in, feel your age, and just eat pizza. Where you aren’t a ‘homeless person,’ or a ‘vulnerable person,’ or a ‘transient person.’”

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