Fairfax County homeless issue examined as some sleep in tents


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In 2008, Fairfax County launched an ambitious “Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness,” with the goal of ending homelessness in suburban northern Virginia within 10 years.

While homelessness has fallen by more than a third since that deadline was set, tented encampments in the woods, including one a short walk from the satellite country’s government center in Reston, show the aim to reduce the number to zero is still far from being achieved.

The County Board of Supervisors recently ordered a review of Fairfax’s homelessness prevention efforts, joining other localities in the region that have grappled with a problem that, while diminishing, has become more visible. during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some supervisors expressed frustration with limited progress after several hundred people returned to the streets in early spring, prompted by the closure of seasonal hypothermia shelters that operate between December and April, and the end of a program pandemic in March which housed the homeless inside hotels. .

“Some things never change and that’s very, very disturbing,” Supervisor Penelope Gross (D-Mason) said Tuesday before the board approved a review motion.

Nearly 1,200 people in Fairfax are considered homeless, according to a spot count taken in January. That’s about 35% less than the number of homeless people in the county in 2008.

But, after a spike in homelessness in 2020, there are 204 more homeless people in Fairfax now than there were in 2018, according to a report. on homelessness in the region released earlier this month by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Some use their cars as their beds in this wealthy Virginia suburb

With about 282 adults sleeping on the streets, while others are staying in emergency shelters or another form of temporary housing, county officials are looking for ways to add more shelter beds and sleeping options. accommodation in Fairfax.

There are six county-owned emergency shelters in Fairfax operated by local nonprofits with a total of 510 beds in a mix of spaces for single adults or entire families. Some facilities have a waiting list of several hundred people to enter.

There are also 670 beds available in supportive housing complexes which offer mental health counseling, job training, financial literacy and other services, in addition to a place to sleep, also with long lists of waiting. Other programs provide emergency rent and utility payments and access to affordable child care for people at risk of losing their homes.

The Board of Supervisors has asked county staff to seek out sites where more supportive housing could be developed. The county will also consider building more emergency shelters in commercial and industrial areas of Fairfax, a more viable option after the pandemic forced some businesses to close.

Sarah Selvaraj D’Souza, executive director of Reston Strong, said her community group is pushing for the alternative. The organization, originally set up in 2020 to help those suffering from the pandemic, has helped dozens of homeless people who were living in tents in the Reston area.

She pointed to several large commercial sites around the community that would make good candidates for temporary housing. A Best Buy store recently closed and is vacant. A closed elderly rehabilitation center at Inova Hospital has been vacant since 2014, used as a sleeping place by some homeless residents until in February they were forced out of the facility, which is closed and provided for be demolished. “We have a lot of space here,” she said.

In April, Reston Strong sought to make the problem more urgent by helping people who were forced out of a nearby hypothermia shelter after it closed for the season to settle in. tents outside the North Fairfax County Government Center, which houses the office of Supervisor Walter Alcorn (D-Hunter Mill) and a county police station.

Many of those people were previously staying at area hotels as part of the county’s Quarantine, Shield, Isolate and Decompression Program, launched in 2020 as a way to guard against the spread of the coronavirus.

But that temporary program ended in March, in part because coronavirus vaccinations are now widely available in Fairfax, but also because nonprofits in the area struggled to keep it staffed and that hotel rooms were harder to come by after the region’s tourism industry rebounded.

“We don’t want people living in tents. This is absolutely not what we advocate,” Selvaraj D’Souza said. “But what options did they have?”

All but two of these tents have now disappeared after the ‘Neighbors in Tents’ campaign, involving food and water donations to tent dwellers, received some publicity. The tent dwellers moved to a nearby wooded area.

But the message resonated with county officials. Alcorn has created a community task force to develop a master plan for the Reston area that will include more permanent supportive housing and improvements to the Embry Rucker emergency shelter.

How is Mayor Bowser’s promise to end homelessness going?

“We need more shelter beds,” Alcorn said in an interview, calling it “a moral obligation” to provide as many solutions as possible for homeless people. “We are short.”

Another barrier has been the inability of local nonprofit and faith-based organizations that run homelessness prevention programs to retain staff and volunteers, a problem related to stress and lower pay than the one could win in the private sector which has been compounded by concerns over the coronavirus infection, county officials said.

“Turnover is generally quite high among shelter staff,” said Thomas Barnett, deputy director of the Office to Prevent and End Homelessness. “This creates challenges, in creating stability and high quality services.”

Maura Williams, vice president of housing and community services at nonprofit Cornerstones, said it was particularly difficult to keep staff working through the county’s hotel program. Cornerstones had operated one of six hotels used for this program, serving around 90 people, with the understanding that it would be for three months. Then the program was extended several times.

“It was great for the program, but you lose staff when that happens because they figured it was going to end on a certain date,” Williams said. “During the pandemic, we were in a constant state of hiring. I don’t think we’ve ever been able to stop and say, ‘Okay. We are complete.

Jeffrey C. McKay (D-At Large), county council chairman, said the local homelessness problem could be much worse after thousands of people lost their jobs during the pandemic in an area where it is difficult to find affordable housing.

It shows that many homelessness prevention programs in the county have worked, he said. But, as some people leave the streets, others become new homeless, which “feels like being on a treadmill”, he added.

The review of the county’s homelessness prevention plan aims to find out “what works with regularity?” he said. “What is a waste of resources? What is another jurisdiction doing that is a best practice that we should try to experiment with here? »

Outside her tent in the woods near the Reston Government Center, Joan McDonald said she just wanted a place she and her unemployed friend can afford on the $24 an hour wage she she earns as a bus driver.

McDonald, 48, has been homeless since 2016, after his brother asked him to leave his home in Springfield to make room for their sick parents. She and her friend, who became homeless after her husband left, have been in their tent in Reston since February.

The subsidized apartments they were offered are still overpriced at around $1,500 a month, when factoring in other expenses, McDonald said. “It hurts,” she said, sitting at a picnic table in her bus driver’s uniform after finishing her shift.

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