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N Street Village Making a Difference; People Reclaiming Their Lives

By Megan Miller*

[Note: Photographs accompanying this news story in the print edition can be viewed in the full PDF copy in the Current & Back Issues Archive.]

Just above Thomas Circle, at the intersection of N Street and Vermont Avenue, a small, distinct village stands out from the surrounding urban landscape. It’s a village where women go to rebuild their lives.

N Street Village has served the homeless and low-income women of the Washington area for 35 years. About 800 clients pass through its doors annually. The nonprofit facility offers a wide range of programs — everything from meals and a night’s shelter to health care, education and career assistance, and therapy and counseling sessions.

On July 24, a group of clients welcomed friends and neighbors from the community to the unveiling of an artwork they produced in one of the programs. The featured art was a mural the women designed and created over several months and more than 100 hours as an extension of an art therapy program directed by staff member Lina Assad.

Many N Street Village clients struggle with addiction, mental illness or emotional problems from abuse, and Assad believes art therapy can help them to express themselves more openly. “It reaches a lot of the women who have traumatic histories and who have trouble verbalizing,” she told The InTowner.

More than 30 women contributed to the mural project, and the artwork shows evidence of both their collaboration and their individual journeys. The painting’s background depicts the N Street Village facility transitioning across three phases of a day — morning, afternoon, and night. Overtop of the background, the women attached rows of small individual panels representing the windows of the Village’s. Each “window” displays one woman’s vision of what the Village has meant to her.

Mary Brumback, who arrived in May, came to fight alcoholism and other health problems. She originally proposed the idea of the mural.

“With most [homeless shelters], it’s just a place that people sleep. That’s not what people need. People need a place where they can go and research and learn and get back on their feet,” Brumback said. “They’re going out of their way here to help us.”

Jkirah Revendez, 29, grew up with a mother who was on drugs, and also suffered repeated sexual abuse. “I’ve been suicidal, homicidal, and this was all before 23,” she said. She pointed out her painting, featuring a dove of peace. “Now everything I went through is in the past. I’m starting school in the fall.”

One case manager who attended the unveiling ceremony said that creative projects like the mural can help women realize their own strength and value as individuals.

“It gives them a lot of hope. It shows them their talents — that they do have something to offer,” she said.

The executive director of N Street Village, Dr. Mary Funke, echoed the same sentiments: “This project is emblematic of our efforts, which are to empower our clients to define their own lives.”

Tracey Westry, 42, began attending programs in early 2008. Before that, she spent three years living in a car in the parking lot of a Maryland Exxon station, where she also worked the day shift.

“The manager let me park my car there, and I’d wash up in the bathroom,” Westry said. “I spent Christmas in there, spent Thanksgiving in there. In the winter he’d let me move the car into the car wash at night to keep it warmer.”

Westry is determined to put her life back on track. Her window painting depicts a bright, glittering object standing out starkly against a charcoal-colored background.

“It’s a chess piece,” she explained. “It symbolizes that we need to think carefully about our next moves.” She gestured toward the painting. “I want to go forward. I don’t want to go back.”

*Megan Miller is currently working toward her Masters in Journalism degree at the University of Maryland’s Phillip Merrill College of Journalism. A graduate from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, she was enrolled in its College of Humanities and Social Sciences with majors in Social and Cultural History and English.