Churches Make Space to Shelter the Homeless

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 7, 2006

Bolstered by increased support from Fairfax County, a coalition of churches is again opening its doors to the homeless this winter.

The Hypothermia Response Program was launched after three homeless people died from exposure to the cold in the winter of 2004-05. The churches are taking turns through March 31 providing food and a place of last resort for those who don't have somewhere warm to sleep.

Bethlehem Lutheran, on Little River Turnpike in Fairfax, began serving as the first host church last Friday. Those seeking shelter are picked up daily at the Burkholder Administrative Center, 10700 Page Ave. in Fairfax City, between 5 and 6 p.m. and are returned there early the next morning. Organizers ask that guests not go directly to the church.

"The faith community has stepped up in a great way," said James J. Brigl, chief executive of Fairfax Area Christian Emergency and Transitional Services Inc. (FACETS), the nonprofit organization that operates the program.

Organizers said last winter's response to the program took them by surprise. They expected that 30 to 35 people would come each night, but ended up with between 60 and 70. Officials say the rising expense of housing in the county, or simply heightened awareness of the program, may have contributed to the surge.

Concern about numbers has made FACETS reluctant to advertise the Hypothermia Response Program as widely as it did last year, when a list of participating churches was available on its Web site. Brigl said the word has been spread informally through the county's emergency shelters and the Lamb Centerin Fairfax City, a daytime facility for the homeless. Fairfax County, which has supported the program in the past, has come up with an additional $149,000 for supplies and staff to help church volunteers. In addition to FACETS personnel, a county mental health counselor, a medical outreach worker and a nurse practitioner will be available to help address the problems of a population plagued by depression and by drug and alcohol abuse.

Fairfax's homeless population has hovered around 2,000 for the past five years, the highest of any area jurisdiction except the District, with more than 8,900 homeless, according to the most recent figures compiled by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

The principal target for the hypothermia program is "the unsheltered homeless," the official term for a group of mostly adult men who avoid county-run shelters and live in parks and wooded areas off the region's main roads. County officials estimate they number about 200.

So far, the program has met its main goal -- no known hypothermia deaths in the county last winter.

In addition to sheltering those who might otherwise have slept in the cold, the program provided an eye-opening experience for many of the 1,800 church volunteers who participated. According to comments compiled by FACETS in a report on the 2005-06 effort, volunteers had to deal with a variety of problems including drunken, disorderly guests, arguments over snoring and medical emergencies. But their experiences also kindled a deeper awareness of the complexities of homelessness, and have led to additional action, including a community summit to discuss how to end homelessness by 2015.

Organizers emphasized that the hypothermia effort is designed to address only the most acute symptoms of a much larger malady, and that until the county has significantly more affordable housing, the problem will remain.

"The hypothermia program is a Band-Aid program. When people bleed, they need a Band-Aid," said Brigl. "None of us wants to lose sight of the fact that this is not the solution."

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