Council to Vote on Relocating Homeless Sanctuary

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

The City of Fairfax, eager to move a day center for the homeless from its location on Old Lee Highway, is close to buying an office building outside the city limits to serve as the shelter.

The City Council will meet Dec. 12 to vote on whether to pay $2.6 million to relocate the Lamb Center, one of Northern Virginia's few daytime sanctuaries for the homeless. The city holds a 45-day option to buy a 10,000-square-foot low-rise building in Merrifield, near Route 29 and Gallows Road.

The relocation plan, which would also require approval by Fairfax County, has already drawn opposition from neighbors.

If the purchase is completed, the city would hold the property until the Lamb Center, a ministry operated by Truro Episcopal Church, forms a nonprofit corporation to purchase it. City Manager Robert L. Sisson said there was no timetable for the resale, except that it would be "as soon as possible."

The center, which opened in 1992 above a pawnshop on what is now Fairfax Boulevard, is an important source of spiritual support and job counseling for some of the area's homeless. Between 50 and 60 people come each morning for a meal, a shower, access to phones and washing machines and leads on possible jobs. Director Bob Wyatt said that in the past year about 30 clients have moved from homelessness to jobs that pay more than $10 an hour -- enough to afford housing.

But the center's presence has long vexed city officials and merchants. They say the current location, a converted car radio repair shop near Fairfax Circle, is ill-suited for the Lamb Center's mission.

Some clients buy alcohol at a 7-Eleven next door. There have been incidents of disorderly conduct, trespassing and assault in and around the center, according to police reports. This year, city officials told the center that the showers and laundry facilities violated zoning laws.

For 18 months, church and city representatives have been searching for a new location. They agree that the Merrifield building, at 2923 Telstar Ct., most recently the East Coast corporate headquarters of Gold's Gym International, is a good spot. The new quarters would nearly triple the size of the current facility,

"This is an opportunity to let the ministry have a location in which it can thrive," Sisson said.

The Lamb Center would need a zoning exception from the Board of Supervisors to operate at the Merrifield site, which is surrounded by office buildings and a self-storage facility. It is zoned for industrial use.

Residents of High Pointe at Jefferson Park, a 222-unit condominium and townhouse development near the building, have registered their concern. A new group, the Merrifield Citizens Association, has organized around the issue.

John Toman, president of the High Pointe group, said the Lamb Center would face the same difficulties in the Merrifield neighborhood, which has an ABC store at a nearby strip shopping center.

Toman said his group is also worried about the proximity of the center to Luther Jackson Middle School, especially because the center closes its doors in the late afternoon, moving at least some of its clients onto the streets.

"Our efforts are certainly not to stop the good work of the Lamb Center," Toman said, "but to work with them to find the best location."

Toman said his group will have representatives at the Dec. 12 City Council hearing.

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