A New Haven for the Homeless

Families of any size, mostly single mothers and their children, will be able to stay in the two-story shelter for up to 60 days while they look for more permanent housing.
Families of any size, mostly single mothers and their children, will be able to stay in the two-story shelter for up to 60 days while they look for more permanent housing. (Jahi Chikwendiu)
By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 2, 2007

Over the past generation, farmland and open space have steadily disappeared in western Fairfax County, leaving subdivisions and the familiar look and feel of a prosperous 21st-century suburb.

As these portions of the county grow, so do the needs of the working poor and homeless families. To help fill in gaps, the county is set to open its first homeless-family shelter in this western swath, one that should help ease burgeoning needs in one of the nation's wealthiest jurisdictions.

The shelter, which will celebrate a ribbon-cutting Saturday, is named after Katherine K. Hanley, the former chairman of the Board of Supervisors who helped push development of the shelter by piecing together the initial public and private funding. It is the first family shelter for the homeless that the county has built in more than 20 years.

The facility is intended to address the continued homelessness in the affluent county. An estimated 1,800 people in Fairfax County and Falls Church live in shelters or other temporary housing, according to a recent regional survey -- a slight increase from 2006. About 1,100 of those are on the streets with their families.

While the board has set a goal of eliminating homelessness, the problem has persisted. As of last week, about 60 families were waiting for beds in shelters and advocates said the new facility will take care of them.

What the shelter won't take care of, though, is the sharp increase in the number of homeless single adults, partly a result of the shortage of low-cost efficiency apartments, known as single-room occupancies. In March, the Community Council for the Homeless urged the County Board to expedite more permanent housing to help the homeless back into the mainstream, especially by creating units for single adults.

"The critical piece here is keeping families together so they can get back on their feet," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Board of Supervisors, referring to the Hanley shelter.

The two-story building is to receive its first families at the end of the month. It will function the same way the county's other three family facilities do, mostly housing single mothers and their school-age children. As in the other facilities, residents will be allowed to stay for up to 60 days while they look for transitional housing or permanent options.

The shelter is the culmination of several years spent finding support from the community, the necessary funds and a suitable spot. The building is on a 5.7-acre, county-owned site near Centreville. Members of the West Fairfax County Citizens Association received a briefing on the shelter last month.

The facility has the added benefit of incorporating environmentally friendly features, including energy-efficient appliances and water-efficient landscaping, county officials said.

The $6.6 million shelter was paid for using county money and proffers from private developers. It will be run by Shelter House Inc., a local social services agency that has a contract with the county to provide round-the-clock staffing and maintenance. It will house about 20 families, with no limit on family size.

As in most shelters, the families' paths to homelessness vary. Some were born and raised in Fairfax; others come from the District or beyond. Some are fleeing abusive relationships. Most held the kinds of low-income service and retail jobs, such as security guards and sales clerks, that sustain Tysons Corner and the county's other signature developments.

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