For Koube Ngaaje, helping others is in her DNA

Battling double pandemics—COVID-19 and the resulting increase in domestic violence—has tested the mettle of this Executive Director and the organization she leads.

Since taking the reins of District Alliance for Safe Housing (DASH) in 2017—10 years after the ground-breaking organization launched—35-year-old Executive Director Koube Ngaaje has doubled the organization’s capacity to shelter victims of domestic and sexual violence. Then, COVID-19 struck and created even greater urgency in the DC community.

“The last few months have been difficult,” Koube says. “It has been incredibly hard for the entire organization.” To stay on track, Koube and her team pivoted quickly and got organized, while maintaining an eye on addressing the increased homelessness and need for safe housing that followed the pandemic. 

Creating safe housing in a crisis 

DASH’s domestic violence transitional housing options provide up to two years of subsidized rent for families to stabilize and overcome various financial barriers; as well as ongoing advocacy to stay safe and build longer-term financial support as they work to stabilize after leaving their abusers. Survivors trying to navigate their housing needs during the pandemic are often emotionally raw and overwhelmed as many are newly experiencing life  as single parents, facing financial uncertainty, and feeling anxious about the future.

“Domestic violence has become a second pandemic of its own—stay-at-home orders became worst case scenarios, leaving survivors trapped indoors with their abusers,” she says. “When the pandemic first broke out, we were seeing almost four times the number of survivors reach out for services.” Soon after, DASH’s Cornerstone housing program saw its first COVID-19 case—the first case among DC safe housing agencies. Koube suddenly had to figure out not only how to deal with the increased need, but also how to  keep her staff and residents across multiple DASH programs safe, secure, and healthy. 

The process started with DASH staff moving to remote work—this, they knew required going above and beyond to help survivors secure transitional housing during the pandemic. The team set up bimonthly leasing at the DASH office with boxes of PPE gear to protect everyone’s health and safety. On-site staff carefully walked families through the lease-up process, how to find resources like food and supplies for school, and other critical resources. 

“Even when the unthinkable happened in the city, DASH staff are flexible, innovative, and fully committed to keeping every survivor safe. So DASH never closed its doors during the pandemic,” Koube explains. “Our tagline is ‘Home Means Safety,’ and we needed to keep delivering on that message—so we reimagined how we did things. We pivoted our staff to work a combination of remote and limited in-person hours. We took care of each other and reached out to hundreds of supporters and funders who helped DASH reach our COVID-19 Fund goal. We launched Right to Dream, DASH’s new program providing 20 transitioning youth survivors—all age 18-24—with wraparound support and housing assistance for up to two years.”

Supporting women and families making change 

This work has helped women like Tonya*, who came to DASH at the height of the pandemic. Tonya scraped together some savings working two part-time jobs, but both jobs were in the beauty industry, and she hadn’t been able to work in four months.

Tonya had been homeless since she was 16 and had experienced a series of abusive relationships as she tried to move out of various shelters and relied on partners for stable finances. Tonya had been staying with a relative and sleeping on their couch after fleeing her last boyfriend—a boyfriend who had put her in the hospital with a broken jaw.

“All Tonya wants is to be safe long enough so she can get a real job and not have to ever depend on a man for home or safety again,” Koube explained. “We told her DASH stands for home, means, and safety. Tonya, for the very first time in her life, signed her own lease in her own name and is working with her DASH advocate to determine what type of career she’d like, and therefore, which DASH job training partner she can work with. Meanwhile, DASH has helped her enroll in tele-mental health to start to address the trauma the abuse left her with and the mental health effects of COVID. We look forward to helping Tonya achieve her goal and thrive.” 

Safe housing leadership is in her DNA 

Safe housing leadership, Koube notes, is deeply personal. Originally from Cameroon, Koube’s mother was a philanthropist, educator, advocate, and leader in safe housing who helped countless women and children get out of violent situations. At age 13, Koube, her mother, and sister left Cameroon for Texas. 

“Leaving behind the life she had built in Cameroon, my mother had to start from scratch. She worked multiple jobs to make sure we had everything we needed—including a college education from Baylor University,” she says. “So, for me, this work is about my mother. It’s about the women who I see walking into the building every day. It’s about the young woman or her son who’s able to go to college for the first time and break the cycle of abuse and poverty.” 

Now, looking ahead, Koube has her sights set on all that comes next. This starts with Journey Home, a $4.5 million capital campaign for DASH’s Cornerstone program to secure the future of the District’s largest home for survivors and their children—already DASH has raised $2.1 million. “This will help complete the purchase of the building, as well as provide much needed renovations and improvements to our building, Cornerstone. 

As the name suggests, this building is literally the cornerstone of DASH,” says Koube. “I know in my soul that Cornerstone is a woman. She’s over 90 years old and has got great bones. But she also needs some TLC—tender, love, and care. So this is the major priority for the organization.”  

Beyond that, Koube is looking to leverage the lessons she’s learned during COVID-19 to make DASH even stronger. To date, DASH has housed or kept safely housed 234 families and individuals—and counting. 

“Another lesson for me from the pandemic is being much more unapologetic for the changes that need to be made, especially as we all deal with racial reckoning in our nation and the vast economic and system inequities affecting communities of color. It’s about really pushing the organization, my colleagues, and the people we work with to own the power that we do have, and also to challenge each other to be uncomfortable. Because to be successful and to effectuate real change, this journey is going to be uncomfortable.”