The pressures in Fairfax mirror challenges facing officials nationwide. With Washington’s fiscal standoff slowing the flow of funds, local governments must make choices.
Housing officials in Prince George’s County are considering reducing staff through attrition and cutting grass at housing projects every three weeks rather than every 10 days. In Montgomery County, there’s talk of privatizing housing inspections. In the District, officials say they won’t be able to assign needed vouchers for disabled youths and family members seeking to reunify with relatives after leaving jail.
Once he received a voucher in December, Winn searched for an apartment but couldn’t find one. Either the rent was more than the voucher’s ceiling of about $1,200, or landlords didn’t accept vouchers.
“Plus, I can’t climb no stairs,” Winn said.
In February, for the fourth time, his right lung collapsed. His roommate called 911. “You can’t breathe, you can’t talk, they can’t understand what you’re trying to say,” Winn said.
He was hospitalized for weeks, and it was a terrible time to get sick. The county sent him a notice dated March 28 giving him until April 1 to use his voucher.
“We basically just began scrounging,” said Jerrianne Anthony, a manager at Facets, a Fairfax housing and poverty group.
Winn made calls. The interns made calls. County housing officials offered leads. It didn’t work.
“Even when you have the full amount of time for a voucher, it’s hard for them to find one,” Anthony said. Now they’re looking for another room to rent with his limited income.
Even with the struggles, Winn can’t seem to suppress a sense of humor. “I’m in the Guinness book of records for the man with the most collapsed lungs,” he says, before catching himself: “That’s not supposed to be funny.” He has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. “It’s bad when you’re scared to go to sleep, and you can’t sleep because you can’t breathe,” he said.
Winn’s decline into illness and destitution has come during a life that tracked Fairfax’s rise.
Winn made it through only part of eighth grade. He had trouble learning and dropped out to start working at the school as a custodian, he said.
As a young landscaper, he planted trees in suburban developments as Fairfax grew, then worked for the county cutting them down to clear right of way for sewer lines. Later, as a Ford mechanic, he breathed in asbestos while servicing brakes. The dust and fumes from remodeling floors didn’t help, and neither did smoking.
He lived for years with his mother in a modest house in Tysons that his stepfather purchased for $13,000. After his mom died of breast cancer, he headed out on his own but couldn’t keep up with housing costs. “You’re in Fairfax. You’ve got to have money,” Winn said.
The old house, which has since changed hands and was torn down, was replaced with a grand, two-story white mansion that sold last year for $1.8 million.
During long stretches of homelessness over a decade, Winn usually found a way to come indoors during the winter, staying with friends or finding other shelter. When he couldn’t, he’d light a fire for warmth.
“You have to kind of rotate,” he said, otherwise one part of your body scorches while another freezes. “It’s like rotisserie chicken. . . . You have to keep it evenly hot. It’s just horrible, that’s all.”
Now, his priority is finding a safe place to live, and he wants it to be in a place he knows.
“I’ve been living in Fairfax since I’m 13,” he said. “I should be able to find something here.”