It’s bad enough to be a kid without a home, particularly in a wealthy area like Northern Virginia. But then, to have to go to school and deal with the other kids? And then you wonder, Am I still going to the same school? How will I get there from this shelter? What will I say about being homeless? What about school supplies? Lunch?
And friends from the old neighborhood? “They miss me,” said Lamar, a 15-year-old at the Loudoun Homeless Services Center, whose mother asked that his middle name be used. “They keep asking, ‘Can you come visit?’” He added, very politely, “I’m a little bit disappointed.”
It’s heartbreaking stuff. All of the family shelters in our area are not only full, they have long waiting lists. In Arlington, where there are 71 beds for homeless parents and their children, the wait is 2 1/2 to 3 months, said Tony Turnage, the county’s homeless program coordinator. In Loudoun, there is room for 14 families, and 60 to 70 people (both singles and families) are redirected or turned away each month, said Helen Richardson, senior program director for the Loudoun shelter operated by Volunteers of America Chesapeake.
Fairfax’s four homeless shelters serve about 190 people and include about 130 children at any given time, said Dean Klein of the county’s office on homelessness, with a waiting list of over 100 families. In Prince William, 16 children are in the homeless shelter, ranging from pre-K to community college age, said Rian Brown, head of services for homeless children and families. Alexandria has 63 beds for homeless families and a wait of about three months for a spot, said Lesa Gilbert with Alexandria’s Department of Human Services.
One of the amazing things about homelessness in Northern Virginia is that people with jobs still lose their homes. Denise [also her middle name], with one child in high school and one in elementary school, has been employed steadily for several years. But when her ex-husband lost his job, she simply wasn’t able to pay the rent on an apartment near Leesburg anymore.
Moving into the 89-day transitional program at the Loudoun shelter will help Denise save up enough money for a security deposit and first month’s rent at her next stop, as well as catch up on bills and restore credit.
“We’re going to work through it, we’re going to be fine,” Denise said. And surrounded by the new, but modest, shelter in Leesburg, staffed with case managers and assistance programs, she seemed on the way.
“It’s not the type of homelessness people usually see and think of,” Richardson said. “It’s very expensive to live around here. We’ve had very young couples with newborn babies, up to older people who’ve had jobs for 30 years who were laid off.” For the second time, recently, a woman living in the shelter had a baby, Richardson said.
Loudoun, Fairfax, Prince William and Arlington counties all contract with Volunteers of America Chesapeake to provide homeless services. And all are taking special steps this week to lessen the blow of homeless children starting school again [Loudoun started last week, with a one-time waiver.]
Shelter officials work to ensure the children stay in the same schools, which is actually required by federal law, Prince William’s Brown said. Transferring from school to school can be upsetting, so arrangements are made if the shelter is out of their school’s normal boundaries.
And school buses are re-routed to pick up the children first in the mornings, and drop them off last in the afternoons, Brown said, so they don’t have the embarrassment of their friends watching them return to a shelter.
Loudoun has both an 89-day emergency and a two-year transitional program at its shelter, to provide different levels of service. But residents are required to sock away most of the money they earn, abide by curfews, not use drugs or alcohol and, if unemployed, keep up their job searches.
The rooms in Loudoun’s emergency shelter are clean but small, with room for bunk beds and not much else. But Volunteers of America strive to “inspire self reliance, dignity and hope,” spokeswoman Courtney Shirley said, and emphasis is placed on keeping “everything very positive, hopeful.”
And out of the seeming depression of homeless children, there are success stories. Shirley recently profiled three young men who lived in the Loudoun shelter at ages 4, 6 and 9, first on the emergency side, then on the transitional side. Two are now in college, the third in high school, all three excel academically, and said they intend to spend their lives helping others.
Children in Northern Virginia’s shelters need school supplies, clothes, and gift cards for individual purchases. To make donations, go to www.VOAchesapeake.org. In Loudoun, you can call the center directly at 571-258-3033.