Eyes Opened to the Homeless
Thursday, March 30, 2006
The corners were the first to go.
More than five dozen homeless men and women spread out on sleeping bags arrayed almost wall-to-wall in the fellowship hall of St. George's United Methodist Church in Fairfax last week. Early arrivals headed to the corners to claim what passes for privacy in a crowded shelter.
An air of weariness hung over the hall as it filled with people who had descended from a Connector bus and followed the sign with an arrow directing the church's "hypothermia guests" to the rear door. By nightfall, church volunteers had served them a hot dinner, passed out underwear and entertained them with music and videos of the television show "24."
Similar scenes have played out every night for the past four months in churches around Fairfax County as part of a "hypothermia response" program. Each of the past 17 weeks, churches have taken turns hosting 80 or more homeless people to try to prevent a repeat of two winters ago, when three unsheltered people died of exposure.
The program will close after tomorrow. No deaths from the cold have been reported.
Looking back on the experience, many church volunteers said something unexpected happened. It was not just that they were surprised by the number of homeless people in wealthy Fairfax County -- they routinely drew more than double the 35 to 40 people they anticipated.
No, it was more than a simple discovery of numbers. Along the way, they said, the relationships they developed, and the heartbreaking need they observed up close for the first time, had turned them into advocates for the homeless.
"I now see it as part of my mission to advocate like heck for a better solution to this problem," said Jerry Poje of Vienna, who helped organize the hypothermia week at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax in Oakton. "We cannot hold up our heads terribly high, being one of the most affluent counties in the country, without also solving our problem. We should be a model for other communities, showing how to do this, because of our richness."
Some volunteers, including Poje, have attended meetings of county officials to urge the construction of efficiency apartments, known as single-room-occupancy units, to be staffed with mental health, substance abuse and employment counselors. Homeless advocates proposed paying for it with 1 percent of property tax revenues, on top of the 1 percent now set aside for affordable housing for lower-income residents.
"We need the help of every one of the million-plus residents of Fairfax County that don't have to worry about where they will sleep tonight or where their next meal is coming from," volunteer Hal Fuller of Falls Church said when he urged the Board of Supervisors to build SROs, as the units are called.
There is a precedent for the religious community's activism on homeless issues in the county. About 20 years ago, many churches participated in a similar program providing emergency shelter to the homeless in the winter. Afterward, they rallied and helped spur the county to build the Embry Rucker Community Shelter in Reston. Today, there are five shelters in the county, some reserved for families and others for single adults. But with population growth and the soaring cost of housing, advocates say, there are more homeless than ever.
And now, they are once again the focus of considerable attention. A group of residents and charities called the Community Council on Homelessness, whose goal is to eliminate homelessness in Fairfax County within 10 years, presented its findings on the characteristics of the homeless population to the Board of Supervisors on Monday. On April 7, a Community Summit to End Homelessness will be held at the Freddie Mac headquarters in Tysons Corner.