Fairfax County, along with Fairfax and Falls Church cities, doesn’t want to just manage homelessness, assisting families and individuals as they fall on hard times. They want to end homelessness here. It sounds unrealistic. Utopian even. But experts say it’s possible.
And since 2008, when homeless numbers were rising and the economy was plummeting, Fairfax has actually reduced its overall homeless population by nearly 16 percent and its homeless families by 19 percent.
This has led two groups in recent weeks to single out Fairfax-Falls Church as a prime example of how a community — non-profits, faith groups and even The Government — is making a real impact on a problem once thought to be intractable.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness (there’s that word again) works with more than 300 cities, counties and communities around the country, so they’ve seen success and failure.
“Fairfax is not just doing good work and trying to end family homelessness,” said Pete Witte of the NAEH, “they’re having good outcomes. And that’s fairly unusual, to see all the pieces come together. They have been one of the more impressive communities.”
Witte authored a “Community Snapshot” in April that confers a measure of prestige on the subject, and that the NAEH only does about three times a year. NAEH spokeswoman Catherine An said that ”a lot of communities want to be a snapshot, but they rarely have the data. Fairfax has the data to support their claim.”
In addition, the Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers last month gave Fairfax’s Office to Prevent and End Homelessness an award for “Best Government Housing Initiative,” for its work in “preventing and ending homelessness.” The same group also recognized the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing as the “Developer of the Year.”
The key first step that Fairfax took was to devise a plan to “prevent and end homelessness,” in conjunction with all the folks already involved in the issue. A10-year plan was adopted in 2008, and one key part was to create the county’s Office to Prevent and End Homelessness. There were plenty of groups and agencies working with the homeless, but there was no coordination. In 2009, Dean Klein was brought in to launch and oversee the office.
But rather than being the imperious Lords Who Battle Homelessness, Klein’s office declared a partnership with the various groups who’ve been enmeshed in this struggle for so long. It was a unique set-up, Klein said, and “a lot of non-profit community groups were energized by seeing us do this.”
Another big part of the program is to prevent folks from becoming homeless in the first place, rather than reacting to their downfall. And when federal stimulus money was being doled out in 2009, Fairfax used part of its $2.4 million to prevent more than 800 people from becoming homeless through rental assistance and case management, Klein said.
If a family or person does become homeless, “we take a housing-first approach,” Klein said. “From the day they enter a shelter, we’re looking at where and when we’re going to move them to appropriate, safe and reliable housing.”
Building relationships with area landlords is key, and Klein’s people are finding landlords who will rent to homeless folks “in an affordable way.”
Klein said transparency is vital: the ability to clearly track the number of homeless people as well as the amount of available housing. Having real data gives the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Partnership on Ending Homelessness (the project’s governing board, headed by former Herndon Mayor Mike O’Reilly) an honest handle on where they are. In addition to having a goal of zero homeless, Fairfax also has a goal of 2,650 housing units for homeless people by 2019, Klein said.
In the last fiscal year, the goal was 124 units, and they only reached 103. They’ve since passed the 124 mark, but Klein feels it’s important to show their progress, at whatever speed, along the way.
The partnership also involves local businesses, and Klein said companies such as Northrop Grumman and Google have hosted recent events. Instead of pumping them for money, Klein said he wants to make use of local corporations’ other assets, such as data solutions, project management, lending staff or encouraging their employees to volunteer.
In 2005, the Fairfax-Falls Church community had 1,458 people experiencing homelessness, and nearly two-thirds of those were families. By 2008, that number had risen to 1,835. In 2010, the number had plummeted to 1,544, and this year it is 1,549. The number of homeless family members was 1,091 in 2008. Now it is down to 883.
The goals of preventing homelessness in the first place; increasing and preserving affordable housing; delivering integrated social services; and using a community partnership to ensure accountability and funding seem to be having an impact.
Community groups, churches and social agencies “have been at this for such a long time,” Klein said, but they have new motivation “now that they see themselves as part of the solution.”
Nan Roman, president of the NAEH, said, “Ending homelessness is absolutely the correct goal for Fairfax County and for the nation. To be clear, ending homelessness does not mean that people won’t continue to have housing crises and lose their housing. What it does mean is that when they do, the crisis will be quickly resolved and...they will not be spending months or years living in shelter.”
Kerrie Wilson, president of Reston Interfaith, said “Dean’s office, and Dean himself, have been a great facilitator of the partnership. Dean understands it takes all of us to make a difference.”
Volunteers of America, which runs the Baileys Crossroads Community Shelter, has a regional chapter from Baltimore to Chesapeake headed by Russ Snyder.
“Fairfax County is the most progressive place,” Snyder said, “as far as committing resources and solving the problem of homelessness in their community. Other places, you don’t see the same type of business engagement, the Office to End Homelessness...they’ve been very effective.”