Fairfax County reduced homelessness by 16 percent during recession

June 20, 2011

Fairfax County, along with the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church, doesn’t want to just manage homelessness by assisting families and individuals as they fall on hard times. They want to end homelessness.

And since 2008, when homelessness numbers were on the rise and the economy was sinking, 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 and Falls Church as prime examples of how communities — nonprofits, faith groups and governments — are making an impact on a problem once thought to be in­trac­table.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness works with more than 300 cities, counties and communities around the country, so its leaders have 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, which the NAEH only does about three times a year.

In addition, the regional 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.

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 [a] shelter.”

The key first step that Fairfax took was to devise a plan, along with all the groups already involved in the issue. A10-year plan was adopted in 2008, and one vital aspect was to create a new county homelessness office. 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.

Klein’s experienced staff declared a partnership with the various groups that had battled homelessness for so long. It was a unique set-up, Klein said, and “a lot of nonprofit community groups were energized by seeing us do this.”

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.”

Another important aspect of the program is to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. 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 the homeless “in an affordable way.” Fairfax has a goal of identifying 2,650 housing units for homeless people by 2019, Klein said.

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 families was 1,091 in 2008. Now it is down to 883.

Those statistics are another part of the initiative’s goals: to be transparent and accurate in tracking homelessness, to help ensure accountability.

And finally, Klein noted the county’s overall declared goal: “Ending homelessness means that no later than Dec. 31, 2018, every person who is homeless or at risk of being homeless in the Fairfax-Falls Church community is able to access, if they so choose, appropriate affordable housing and the services needed to keep them in their homes.”

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.”

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.
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