Prior to the pandemic, formerly unhoused residents at the John and Jill Ker Conway Residence used to take trips out to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. There were also Friday family game nights, potluck dinners, Superbowl pizza parties, and other events to bring together the more than 120 formerly chronically homeless and low-income residents who call the Conway home.
But the pandemic changed all that. Residents were now isolated because many of the events were paused to comply with safety guidelines. With the support of Amazon Web Services (AWS), leaders at the Conway Residence were able to reimagine their social programs to strengthen their signature sense of community during challenging times.
Building community at the John and Jill Ker Conway Residence
Washington DC is a part of Built for Zero, a national movement of over 80 communities working to achieve a lasting end to homelessness that leaves no one behind. The John and Jill Ker Conway Residence sits in Washington DC’s growing NoMa neighborhood, located near Capitol Hill and the District’s historic national museums and monuments. Co-developed by Community Solutions, the Conway Residence was built to aid in ending veteran homelessness in DC, and it provides a network of on-site supportive services tailored to residents’ needs.
“The sense of community has been what makes this building so beautiful,” said Sarah Malala, Program and Data Coordinator at the Conway Residence.
Resident-created events, spanning from potlucks to art classes, allowed residents to meaningfully connect and build community with their neighbors.
Keeping the Conway community together during COVID-19
When COVID-19 arrived, peer leaders and staff were tasked with coming up with new ways to support residents by coordinating events that uphold social distancing measures and ensure safety for all.
Underscoring the link between public health and housing, people experiencing homelessness are more likely to have underlying health conditions and an advanced age, facing heightened risks during the pandemic. Many Conway residents are highly vulnerable to contracting and spreading COVID-19, because residents who experienced homelessness are of an advanced age and likely to have preexisting health conditions.
In the winter of 2019, AWS volunteers packed gift baskets with food and toiletries to gift residents during their annual holiday luncheons. AWS’s support allowed the Conway team to reimagine this as a socially distanced event. During the Conway Residence’s 2020 grab-and-go holiday luncheon, staff were able to deliver 100 gift baskets, which this year included PPE and winter clothing like gloves, as well as the usual snacks, toiletries, candy, and other items aimed at helping people who experienced homelessness readjust to housing.
“[This event was] one of the biggest instances of joy and togetherness that we’ve been able to enjoy as a community in a long time,” Malala said. “It also was a chance for neighbors to remember that we’re all here for each other. The donation of groups like AWS helps remind us of that and get through challenges.”
Peer leaders like Paul Farver are gearing up to bring even more community events to fruition in 2021 with the support of AWS, like virtual art classes, computer support, and gifting essential items.
Farver is particularly excited about leading the project to foster a community garden on the terrace of the Conway Residence when spring arrives.
“Whatever I had the space for, I would grow vegetables,” he reflected. “I want to grow food and a couple tomato plants.”
For residents, upcoming community projects, like the terrace garden, are a welcome addition. “It’s a nice green and warm reminder that there are better things on the horizon,” Malala said.