In Arlington, need for emergency shelter swells

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As charities across the country struggle to help a growing number of people in need, Arlington County's emergency winter homeless shelter is working to expand its resources and services for people who seek its help each night.
By Yamiche Alcindor
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 3, 2009

Arlington County's emergency winter homeless shelter is working to expand its resources and services for people who seek its help each night.

Kathleen Sibert, executive director of the Arlington Street People's Assistance Network, the nonprofit group that operates the shelter, said the number of people seeking help this year has ballooned.

"We're seeing people who were just making it," Sibert said. "But now they've gone over the edge."

Last week, the county approved an expansion of the shelter at 2409 N. 15th St., allowing it to house 73 people nightly. Last year, the shelter, which is open through March 31, was licensed to house 40 people. But since this year's opening Nov. 1, the shelter has housed an average of 58 people per night.

Homeless men and women gather on benches across from the shelter daily at 3 p.m. Doors open at 4 p.m., as the sun begins to set. Among those seeking shelter on an evening last week were men and women of varied ages, races and backgrounds.

Many of the faces are familiar to Sibert and her staff. Some of those seeking shelter have lost a job or had their hours cut at work, she said, adding that any income change in tough economic times can be devastating.

Last week, one woman walked into the shelter wearing a suit and high heels. A man in jeans and a T-shirt wore a large ring that looked much like a college championship keepsake. A women wrapped in a large coat sat quietly in a wheelchair.

Sibert said federal stimulus funds have allowed the Arlington Street People's Assistance Network to enhance its efforts throughout the county. In addition to the shelter, the group runs a year-round bagged-meal program to deliver food to homeless people on the streets.

Like other nonprofit groups, Sibert said, the network is facing funding hurdles. It costs about $179,000 to run the shelter for five months with money the county provides.

"The challenge is that the need has jumped so much," Sibert said. She added that she would like the shelter to be open year-round.

Olivia Payton, the shelter's director, oversees 13 staff members. She greets clients with an orientation, during which she explains the rules. Most rules are simple: no weapons, no fighting and no stealing, Payton said, and most clients act responsibly.


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