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By the time she reached middle school, T.R. had chosen her career path. At night, she would sneak out of her home off upper Georgia Avenue NW and hit the streets to peddle drugs. She learned the ways of the trade—threats, intimidation, and violence—quickly. At 15, she was arrested for stabbing another girl over a dispute so petty that she can’t remember what it was about.
While she awaited her day in juvenile court, T.R. checked into the Tower, a Benning Road NE home for delinquent girls run by the YWCA and funded by the District. Widely considered one of the city’s model social programs, the Tower got T.R. back into school and convinced her to join the girls’ basketball team. The Tower’s staff, she recalls, left no avenues for backsliding. “[The staff] just stayed with you, talked to me when I was upset,” she says. “Taught me there were other ways of dealing with a situation than to just snap on somebody. Even now, if I get in a problem at work, I remember what the counselors used to say to me.”
T.R. left the streets behind and has been standing tall ever since. Now 19, she works as a cook at a local community center and earns enough to support her three daughters. To this day, she marvels at the changes the Tower inspired. “My mentality then was, I was just going to go back out on the street and sell drugs,” she says. “Get back out there as quick as I could.”
But other T.R.s coming up won’t have the Tower to pick them up and show them a different way; despite its enviable 22-year record in juvenile counseling, the Tower closed its doors for good this month. The shuttering of the Tower coincides with a new low in delivery of social services and has prompted a finger-pointing match between the YWCA and city officials over who deserves the blame.
At first glance, the Tower looks like just another victim of the city’s budget shortfall and negligent record of paying social service providers. YWCA Director Josephine Pamphile says the city was regularly three or four months behind in its payments, and at one point in the past year was five months behind. At the worst point, Pamphile argues, the District owed the YWCA $124,000, or about one third of the Tower’s annual budget. “We’re not in a position to carry that amount of debt,” says Pamphile. “I have people who expect a paycheck every two weeks. How do I meet payroll expenses?”
The city says Pamphile is misinformed. According to Madeline Andrews, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services (DHS), the District has been obligated by a May 1995 court order to keep payments up to date under a ruling that found the Tower’s program an “essential” social service. As a result, the city was forced to pay up every 45 days, and Andrews insists that payment delays rarely exceeded a month.
Tower Director Norlishia Jackson says that late payments were always a part of the picture and certainly did not justify closing the home. “The city has been paying late for 22 years,” she says. She points out that while Pamphile and the YWCA board were deliberating on the home, the city was making regular payments.
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Payments aside, Pamphile says the YWCA was tired of dealing with the never-ending string of three-month contracts that it had to sign with the the District—an arrangement that made the YWCA a permanent short-term partner with a cash-strapped city. But Joyce Burrell, acting administrator for DHS’s Youth Services Administration (YSA), says she assured the YWCA that the city would soon offer a long-term contract for the facility. (Contracting rules required the YWCA to compete with other bidders, but the YWCA’s experience and high ratings from YSA made it a lock for the contract.)
YWCA critics say the Tower shutdown is part of a pattern of community divestment and another step away from the Y’s stated social mission to “create opportunities for women’s growth, leadership, and power.” In February, Pamphile handed over management of the YWCA’s downtown fitness program to a private firm, Sports and Health, with the aim of making the facility “a top competitor in the downtown area”—code for yuppifying the club to the exclusion of its longtime elderly and low-income clientele. (See “It Was Fun to Swim at the YWCA,” 3/29.)
In January 1995, the YWCA dropped Encore Plus, a breast cancer prevention program and cashiered its director, who oversaw other social outreach programs. And last June, the Y dumped a program that taught social skills to learning-disabled kids. (Since 1990, the Y has also shuttered a branch and three preschool programs in Montgomery County.)
Jackson says the closing of Tower comes as little surprise given the indifference of YWCA management to the program during Pamphile’s two-year term. “In the past, they’d have the girls [from the Tower] come in for Y board meetings, for example,” she says—a practice that ended under Pamphile. And there were other slights: Last year, Jackson was reprimanded by the head office for spending $100 on a small, used refrigerator for staff use, even though the YWCA headquarters on 9th Street is equipped with full kitchens. Jackson says she kept the Tower open throughout the January blizzard with no help from downtown. “Nobody called to see how we were doing—to see if we had groceries, say—for five days,” says Jackson.
Pamphile says there is no conspiracy afoot to dump community outreach at the YWCA; the programs were eliminated because they lost their funding. For instance, a cutoff in funding from the United Way forced the YWCA to scrap the program for learning-disabled students. And Encore Plus was funded by Avon, which withdrew its support.
Pamphile asks, “When the money dries up, what are you going to do?”
Pamphile’s poverty defense doesn’t persuade YWCA supporters. Says one YWCA insider who asked not to be named, “Of course there is a bottom line, and you have to pay for your programs. But you can set your priorities and go after them,” she says. The source says that the YWCA has made little effort to find alternative sources for the defunded programs. “They have not been at all aggressive with going after grants for these programs. They’ve just seemed to shift their priorities—to programs where the client pays most of the cost of the program.”
The YWCA’s other programs—whether funded through fees, the District government, or charities—are unlikely to match the Tower in one critical area: effectiveness. DHS’s Andrews called Tower “a star” among city social programs. Paul Alber, head of the juvenile section of the D.C. Corporation Counsel, declared in a letter to the YWCA that the “Tower has had an extraordinary rate of success in making a difference in the lives of these young women, which in turn contributes to a reduction in recidivism,” he wrote. “There is no other program in the District of Columbia that duplicates the work of the Tower Shelter…”
The Tower got results by tracking its troubled clients 24-7. Tower staffers called the girls’ schools daily to check on attendance. They drove the girls to work and to job interviews. And every Saturday, Tower alumnae returned to the home to spread the gospel on school, work, and personal relations—a program funded by a $100,000 federal grant. That kind of intensive supervision and involvement limited the home’s capacity to eight residents, but the results can’t be argued.
T.R. has no trouble understanding who will ultimately pay for the closing of Tower. “A lot of young girls are going to lose out, that’s all.”—John DeVault