Helping the Unwanted Requires a Lonely Stand

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, December 14, 2006

One year ago today, the Herndon day laborers were moved out of public sight.

But the controversy over illegal immigration that mushroomed because workers were waiting for jobs in a 7-Eleven parking lot has followed the laborers to a workers center run by Reston Interfaith: A new Town Council and its supporters are insisting that the nonprofit social service provider check whether the laborers, almost all of whom are Latino immigrants, are here legally.

Reston Interfaith refuses. "We're not the laborers' employer," says Kerrie Wilson, chief executive of the agency. "It's a matter of trust and what our role is. We make employers aware of their responsibility, but we're there to run a safe site, teach English and do general job training."

Whether the issue is immigration or affordable housing in one of the nation's most affluent counties, Wilson and her agency are determined to take on problems that evade easy consensus. This is the rare charity that's willing to stand up against significant chunks of the community it serves.

Herndon's new leaders have informed Reston Interfaith that the town is looking for a new operator, one that will require laborers to prove they have legal status in this country.

"That's the town's choice," says Wilson, who has run Reston Interfaith since 2000, providing social services in the northern tier of Fairfax County. "With the site as it is now, we've taken 10,000 transactions a year off the streets. If the site is shut or the rules are changed, people will naturally go back to what they did before, and we'll go on the streets. Shutting that site is not going to change the immigration issue."

Wilson's tough stance is not universally popular. Much of the nonprofit group's work is not controversial: No one opposes feeding or sheltering the homeless and the poor. But Wilson, 46, who has lived in Herndon since high school, believes her organization's mission is to educate Fairfax residents about the needs that don't slap you in the face.

In the District, the homeless are on the streets, panhandling and sleeping in doorways -- confronting passersby with the reality of their city. But behind some of Reston's snazziest corporate headquarters, unknown to many of the office workers, there's a tent city of homeless people in the woods.

So when Wilson works, as she is now, to open a hypothermia shelter for Fairfax's homeless, a big part of the job is teaching the public about who is outside on these cold nights. She says she's lucky to start out with a population that on one level is hungry to connect with neighbors.

"People really want to get engaged, and they respond whenever we need volunteers," she says. "They do baby showers and become mentors for first-time parents, which really helps reduce abuse. We have more and more workplace giving, where employers put together teams to do volunteer days, doing renovations or yardwork for poor families."

It's no problem finding people to put together 3,000 Thanksgiving baskets for poor people who are already here. But shift the discussion to finding a place to live for essential health, education and uniformed service workers -- those who make $45,000 or less and commute into Fairfax from distant, more affordable places -- and suddenly that generous consensus dissipates. Most residents say Fairfax is overcrowded and needs to hold the line against further density.

Wilson has an answer -- and not a very popular one. "There is a place for mixed-use, high-rise development in Reston Town Center, and there is room there for low-income and working families," she says. The only alternative to far worse road congestion as more and more workers commute in from West Virginia or rural Virginia is for Fairfax and Loudoun counties to step up production of affordable housing in semi-urban clusters near public transit.

"It's going to be tough, but when we have Metro out here, there are going to be opportunities for added density," Wilson says. The rail line that will extend from Tysons Corner to Dulles Airport will create an incentive to boost the density of development around Reston Town Center and at other transit stations. That will surely unleash a wave of NIMBYism beyond anything seen to date.

Winning that battle will be every bit as hard as confronting illegal immigration. But Wilson says she has found some success in pitching the need for density to suburban residents who cling to their ideals about open space. "I ask people to think about their son or daughter getting out of college and where they're going to live, where they can afford to live," she says. "And then I ask them to think about the bank tellers and grocery clerks we need in our community and where they're going to live. People get that."

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