Last week Borderstan welcomed Maggie Barron to its team of contributors. She is writing about numerous topics of interest that catch her eye here in Borderstan. She’s interested in many things, particularly the way cities work — or don’t — and why.
As block after block of 14th Street NW fills with cranes and condos, Central Union Mission stands out as an ever-more incongruous neighborhood institution. After almost 28 years in Logan Circle, this shelter will leave its current location in October 2012 – and serve its last Thanksgiving meals at 14th and R Streets NW this week.
I spoke to Executive Director David O. Treadwell about the closure, how the neighborhood has changed, and how the Mission is preparing for the holiday.
Borderstan: You’ll move into a temporary location next October and your new facility at 65 Massachusetts Avenue NW is scheduled for completion in June 2013. Why did you make the decision to move?
Treadwell: Back in 2000 we observed the gentrification. It began earlier than that but by 2000 it was becoming intense. We could see the writing on the wall, and we felt like eventually this would no longer be a poor neighborhood. We weren’t priced out since we own our building, but we wanted to be where the people who need our services were.
Our hope was to return to downtown, so we looked for a location where we could take funds from our current building, which has increased in value, and build a state-of-the-art facility. It took us three tries — we’ve had down payments and purchases on two other locations, and finally we have an actual lease and we’re starting the construction work. It’s all about the neighborhoods’ reactions when they hear the word “shelter” — people do not realize the difference in a privately-run and public shelter, and the advantages in how we operate.
Borderstan: How have you seen the neighborhood change over the years?
Treadwell: The first night we opened in 1984, there were two prostitutes right across the street. There were vacant buildings, and the traffic on the street was not particularly pleasant. One didn’t feel safe in the neighborhood at night. Today we see mothers with baby carriages, and neighbors walking their dogs at 9 o’clock at night and feeling completely safe, including right in front of the Mission. And we’re thankful to be a part of that.
Borderstan: What contribution do you feel the Mission has made to the neighborhood?
Treadwell: The mission gives away 400,000 grocery bags a year. The first line is distributed to people right here at the Mission, who live within a four-mile radius of us. So even as gentrification takes place there are still poor people. We draw in people who need help off the street, and we’re still full every night.
Borderstan: Have you had any pushback from your neighbors over the years?
Treadwell: No. The strongest testimony we get in reaching out to new areas is by the lady living right next door to us. She is our strongest supporter. That’s because when she calls the Mission, whatever she calls about is fixed or taken care of immediately. We keep the cleanest sidewalks and have the best trash collections. We try to be very responsive to the neighbors. So we’ve had some good support because of that.
Borderstan: Does it bother you that the property is going to be developed, as offices or retail? Do you feel the neighborhood is losing something as a result?
Treadwell: It doesn’t bother me a bit if I can offer something better. For more than 70 years we operated two seven-story buildings one block off of Pennsylvania Avenue, and we were forced by eminent domain to give up those two buildings. Now, the city is really inviting us to return back downtown. They see the value that we provide.
Borderstan: How do you think the residents of the shelter will respond to the move? Are you concerned there won’t be enough facilities to meet their needs?
Treadwell: Most will go with us. However, the homeless are territorial, so some will not. Some will look for other shelters, and continue to spend time in the northern part of Ward 2 and the southern part of Ward 1. There’s always a concern. For example, on hypothermia nights there are always enough beds for everyone in the city. The city develops a good hypothermia plan each year. But in May, it gets harder. If they are willing to go on the bus they can find a place. It just will not be as convenient for them.
Borderstan: What does the Mission have planned for Thanksgiving this year?
Treadwell: We do two meals on Thanksgiving Day, one at 1 o’clock and 5 o’clock. We also have other support activities all day long — we’ll be conducting food drives, doing Christmas preparations, envelope stuffing, cleaning, a lot of opportunities to use many volunteers. There are so many people who want to volunteer that we run shifts and rotate people through.
It’s wonderful that people are concerned about the poor and homeless at Thanksgiving. We’ve learned that many organizations turn away volunteers. We’ve tried to be creative and invite people in. There’s enough work to be spread around, so let’s share it. We don’t want to just hand someone a plate and walk off. We like to do activities that stimulate conversation, for people to hear each other’s stories and learn about each other. It’s encouraging to our people and it’s also encouraging to the volunteers.
Borderstan: Is there something about the neighborhood that you will miss?
Treadwell: [Laughs] This is a nice quiet neighborhood. Who wouldn’t want to be up here during the day and away from the hustle and bustle of downtown? There are pleasant people up here. I’ll miss all of the little restaurants and everything. It’s a great neighborhood.
The Central Union Mission is always looking for donations. Treadwell told me that donations in October, November and December largely supplement the rest of the year. I encourage everyone to donate and thank them for their nearly 30 years of service in Borderstan.