Advocates for Loving Thy Neighbors
Thursday, March 15, 2007
Shortly after 6 p.m. on a recent Thursday, the first of two busloads of homeless adults pulled up at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Falls Church. As church volunteers checked on bubbling dishes of jambalaya and roast turkey in the ovens, others set out fresh vegetables and snacks on long tables while their guests signed in and staked out places for their sleeping bags.
The routine has been repeated at churches across Fairfax County this winter. Coordinated by a nonprofit organization and funded partly by the county, two dozen churches have taken turns providing food and shelter for those who don't have anywhere warm to go at night.
This year's Hypothermia Response Program ends March 31. Galvanized by the firsthand experiences of the 1,500 church volunteers who prepared the food, ate with and watched over the homeless as they slept, participating organizations are seeking a more lasting housing solution for their wintertime guests.
"We all know that the hypothermia program is not the answer," said Jim Brigl, chief executive of Fairfax Area Christian Emergency and Transitional Services Inc. (FACETS), the county nonprofit group that has coordinated the hypothermia program. "The answer is permanent shelter."
The aim of the initiative is Fairfax's growing population of homeless, which rose 6.5 percent to 2,077 people in 2006, according to the latest figures from the county's annual one-day canvass. Of that increase, 934 were single adults, a 17 percent jump from 2005.
Those are the hardest to help, county officials and church volunteers said. Some, afflicted by mental illness and substance abuse problems, avoid county-run shelters and live outdoors year-round. Others are overwhelmed by personal or health crises.
Many are people who "for whatever reason, are alienated from family and society," said Gerry Poje, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax, which is hosting a summit meeting next week for county leaders, nonprofit organizations and the churches, hoping to forge something more permanent for the future.
This is the second year for the Hypothermia Response Program, which was launched after three homeless people died of exposure to the cold in the winter of 2004-05. The county contributed $150,000 this year.
Those who have volunteered their time contributed something else and gained something.
The program "has been a transformative experience for those who participated in it," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "So much so that they have been powerful advocates on this issue."
Organizers say they are hoping to use the momentum generated by the program, and the zeal of volunteers, to raise $1.25 million to purchase condominium units for permanent housing.
After that, they want to raise additional funds to purchase buildings for use as low-cost efficiency apartments, traditionally known as single-room occupancies, Brigl said. Fairfax has only one such building, operated by the county's Department of Housing and Community Development.