With Low-Cost Housing Lacking, Homeless Population Swells

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 26, 2006

The number of homeless single adults living in Fairfax County has increased sharply over the past year, according to a study to be released tomorrow.

The county's annual "point in time" survey, a one-day canvass conducted Jan. 25, found 2,077 homeless people in Fairfax, a 6.5 percent increase over last year and the highest total since 2002. Of that number, 934 were single adults, a 17 percent jump from 2005.

The count also includes 333 families with 734 children.

The study, based on information gathered at emergency shelters, temporary housing, drop-in centers and mobile food programs, confirms what local officials have described anecdotally for months: that homelessness in one of the country's most prosperous counties is more pervasive than generally assumed.

The Fairfax survey does not count residents whose circumstances place them on the brink of homelessness. The "precariously housed" include families or individuals facing eviction or those who have been taken in by friends or family.

The findings, which will be presented to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors tomorrow, will probably add to the renewed attention the issue is receiving in Fairfax. On April 7, the Board of Supervisors and the Freddie Mac Foundation will hold a day-long "Community Summit to End Homelessness." The conference is expected to bring elected leaders together with business, philanthropic, nonprofit and religious groups.

Other localities in the region are undertaking similar surveys. At least one, Montgomery County, also shows an increase this year in its homeless population -- up 7 percent to 1,745. County officials said that includes a 12 percent increase in homeless single adults, from 616 to 693.

For the past four years, Fairfax has had the largest homeless population of any regional locality outside the District, where more than half of the area's 15,439 homeless reside.

Homeless advocates say the Fairfax survey underscores the need for affordable housing in a county where the average two-bedroom apartment rents for $1,250 a month.

"The lack of affordable housing is the issue that underlies all of homelessness," said Linda Wimpey, chairman of the Community Council on Homelessness, in the advance text of a speech she will deliver to the board.

Last year, the supervisors voted to earmark one penny from the county's tax rate to preserve affordable housing, a decision that Wimpey said was important in keeping the homeless population from increasing even more.

But she said the sharp increase in homeless single adults makes the shortage of low-cost efficiency apartments -- traditionally known as single-room occupancies -- a critical need. Fairfax's sole single-room development, Coan Pond Residences on Pender Drive, is operated by the county's Department of Housing and Community Development.

Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said he has asked Fairfax officials to examine every parcel of county-owned land to determine its suitability for affordable housing, including single-room occupancies.

"It's hard to keep a job or maintain sobriety if you're living in the woods under a tarp," Connolly said.

Wimpey, founder and former chief executive of FACETS, a Fairfax nonprofit group that aids the homeless, said in an interview that the reasons for the sharp increase in homeless single adults, of whom nearly three-quarters are male, were not clear. It may be, she said, that this winter's Hypothermia Response Program, a joint venture of FACETS and the county in which churches took turns providing a week's worth of shelter to the single homeless, made them easier to count.

Although the number of homeless people in families (1,143) is almost unchanged from last year, that group faces challenges in finding shelter. About 60 families are on the waiting list for county shelters, and at one point late last year, 90 families were on the list. Officials say it can take up to four months to find a spot.

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