Homeless Shelter On the Hot Seat Again

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The on-again, off-again dispute over a Fairfax City homeless center is back on.

Two years ago, leaders in Fairfax City engaged in a dispute with a daytime center for the homeless that officials wanted to move to another part of the city or nearby in Fairfax County. The spat between the city and the Lamb Center was never fully resolved, and for months the two sides have quietly coexisted while trying to negotiate an agreement.

But last month, city zoning officials served the center with a pair of notices, alleging that it has continued to violate ordinances by offering laundry services, meals and other services. The center, which provides spiritual counseling, job assistance and laundry service for about 60 homeless people, plans to file an appeal this week, arguing that its daily activities are consistent with zoning rules that allow it to provide job counseling services.

Zoning Administrator Michelle Coleman did not return two phone messages left at her office yesterday, but in a letter accompanying the complaint, the city argues that the "use of these facilities by homeless participants in the Center's program of employment counseling would be more consistent with a school of special instruction devoted to employment training than an office use."

The action is the latest in the dispute about where the center should offer job training, meals and other support services for the homeless men that arrive each morning at the Fairfax Circle facility.

In April 2006, city officials, who had long been uncomfortable with the center's location in a commercial strip adjacent to a 7-Eleven, raised a new round of concerns. The facility was attracting more people by that time, and many in search of services were loitering outside. Later that year, the City Council was set to buy a building in the Merrifield section of Fairfax, but the proposal was immediately opposed by residents and merchants in the Merrifield-Dunn Loring neighborhood, who accused the city of trying to dump a facility troubled by crowding and crime. Opponents said scores of homeless people would mar the recent resurgence of the community.

"We agree that it's not an appropriate place, and we're trying to work with the city as much as possible," said Bob Wyatt, executive director of Lamb Center. "But it confuses me that we're continually in this defensive posture with the city."

Fairfax's homeless population has hovered near 1,830 for five years, the highest of any area jurisdiction except the District, which has nearly 7,000 homeless people, according to the most recent figures from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Those who work with the homeless are not sure if the increased demand at shelters represents an increase in the population or heightened awareness of the services available.

The Lamb Center's predicament is part of what Fairfax officials describe as an increase in the number of people seeking shelter. Waiting lists for families seeking space in one of the county's five shelters have expanded over the past year, from an average of 60 families to more than 90. Last winter, church volunteers anticipated 30 to 35 families each night for their shelter program.

City officials said it has been a difficult situation for all involved because many city residents realize that the center is trying to provide a valuable service to the community.

"They really, in some ways, are a victim of their own success," Mayor Robert F. Lederer said of the center, which is a ministry of Truro Episcopal Church and has been in operation for about seven years. "It's been a difficult situation for everybody."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company