Fairfax County Mobilizing to Prevent Homelessness

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 13, 2008

Despite a leveling off in the number of homeless residents in Fairfax County, supervisors recently approved a far-reaching action plan to end homelessness in the county, renewing their resolve that any amount is too much in one of the nation's most affluent communities.

The plan carries the goal of finding "decent, safe, affordable" housing for everyone in Fairfax, as well as in the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church, by Dec. 31, 2018.

It promotes a Housing First philosophy, espousing the goal of finding permanent housing for the homeless as quickly as possible, rather than using such temporary facilities as shelters or transitional apartments for long periods.

"It's about preventing homelessness," said Fairfax County Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), who leads the board's housing and human services committee. "Everyone who lives in Fairfax County should have the opportunity for safe and decent housing."

A total of 1,835 residents of Fairfax County, Fairfax City and Falls Church are homeless, a fraction of those three communities' total population of about 1.1 million, according to a point-in-time survey conducted Jan. 24. The number is up slightly from 1,813 last year, and 1,766 in 2006. By comparison, nearly 6,000 homeless people live in the District, which has a population of 580,000.

"We don't want a community that allows neighbors to sleep on our streets," Hudgins said.

As a result, ending homelessness ranks among the highest policy priorities for the Board of Supervisors, and it is regularly the topic of passionate speeches by residents addressing the board at public meetings.

The point-in-time survey, for example, includes data from more than 20 nonprofit and religious organizations, as well as public agencies, and accounts for more than 60 homeless programs. Churches and nonprofit groups also have stepped forward in recent years to provide overflow winter shelter and meals for the homeless. And in November, more than 200 advocates showed up for a board committee meeting to urge action to end homelessness.

"We have a tradition in the county of a strong network of human service providers," said Michelle Krocker, executive director of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance. "And a growing, concerned vocal network of faith communities became really determined in their desire to have a better solution to homelessness."

Particularly troubling to advocates and county leaders is the number of homeless families, as opposed to individuals. According to the survey, 311 families, including 414 adults and 670 children, are homeless in the three communities. The survey also found that two-thirds of adults in those families hold jobs, suggesting that wages are often too low to pay for housing in Northern Virginia.

According to the action plan approved last week, ending homelessness will require the cooperation of government, business leaders and the nonprofit sector.

It will also take money. The plan calls for the addition of affordable housing across the region to help homeless families and individuals make the transition to permanent housing. The housing could take the form of below-market rental apartments and group homes, among other options.

The community also must establish the services necessary to keep some homeless people in permanent housing, such as consistent access to mental-health services or job training.

Putting such housing and services in place will also prevent homelessness, according to the plan.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company