Affluent Fairfax Shows Another Face: Poverty
Friday, February 3, 2006
Fairfax County, one of the nation's wealthiest areas, is seeing a sharp increase in the number of people seeking emergency shelter this winter, government officials say.
Waiting lists for families looking for room in one of the county's five shelters have swollen since last year, from an average of 60 families to more than 90. A coalition of churches, taking turns opening their doors to chronically homeless single adults, expected about 30 to 35 each night. Instead, the numbers have been twice that, despite the relatively mild winter.
Fairfax's homeless population has hovered around 2,000 for the last five years, the highest of any local jurisdiction except the District, with its more than 8,900 homeless, according to the most recent figures. Officials say that this winter's upward tick may reflect more awareness of available services rather than actual growth in the homeless population. The whole picture won't become clear until March, when the results of the region's annual survey are available.
The exact number, homeless advocates say, isn't all that important. Nor should it come as a surprise, they add, that a place as affluent as Fairfax (median household income: $85,400) has homeless people.
"Where there is great wealth, there is also insidious, hidden poverty," said Bob Wyatt, director of the Lamb Center, a daytime shelter for the homeless on Old Lee Highway.
The group of 60 or so that bedded down at Centreville United Methodist Church one evening last month included the hard core of a troubled population: chronically homeless single adults who usually opt to stay outdoors. They hole up anywhere: in the woods along Route 50 or Braddock Road, even the grounds of tonier venues such as the Army Navy Country Club. They are overwhelmingly male and almost evenly split between white and nonwhite. About a third hold some kind of job.
It was late afternoon when they arrived by bus from the Lamb Center. A few fell asleep right away, drifting off on the linoleum floor of the brand-new church gym, exhausted from days of living outside.
Others took a few minutes to size up the best spots to spend the night. Next to a wall was the location of choice; it eliminated at least one direction from which trouble could come.
"A lot of homeless people don't sleep at night," said Ken McMillon, 52, one of the 60 or so at the church. For those who live outdoors, such as McMillon, darkness can mean theft, assault or worse.
Their paths to homelessness vary, and personal histories can be murky or incomplete. Some were born and raised in Fairfax; others come from the District or beyond. Most held the kinds of service and retail jobs that sustain Tysons Corner and the county's other signature developments: busboy, janitor, security guard, sales clerk.
And most of them have seen a similar set of dominoes fall.
Start with an illness or an accident. Lose the job. Lose the car, complicating the search for work. Fall behind on the rent or mortgage. Lose the apartment. Exhaust the patience or resources of family and friends.