Return of warm days returns D.C. area's homeless to streets

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 2010

One of the coldest winters in the region's history had passed, but Stanley Terry of Arlington County had a deeply worried look.

The emergency hypothermia shelter where Terry, who is homeless, had slept for the past few months to avoid the life-threatening cold shut its doors April 1 and returned about 70 men and women to the streets.

Terry's predicament put a damper on recent good news: He has a new job as a groundskeeper. But, he said, "I don't know where I'm going to lay my head." He had no bed and no table for an alarm clock. "I've been calling a rack of churches hoping they can find me somewhere where I can sleep and get up in the morning so I can go to work," he said.

More than 1,000 homeless people in the District and its suburbs are forced to seek other shelter or sleep on sidewalks or in wooded camps when area governments close their shelters, which are available Nov. 1 through March 31 and guarantee the homeless places to sleep when snow falls, wind blows and temperatures dip to freezing and below.

According to a tally by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments last year, 12,000 people in the Washington area are homeless. That number could climb next month when the council is expected to release the results of its 2010 survey, conducted in January.

Since the group's 2005 tally, the number of homeless people has increased nearly 7 percent, and the number of homeless families has increased 4 percent. Nearly a quarter of homeless people had jobs last year, and nearly half of homeless adults with a family had a job, as people struggled to earn a living wage in a region with some of the nation's richest counties. The median income for a homeless family in the Washington area was $524 a month, according to the survey.

"The reality is that when we close, they go to the street," said Kathleen Sibert, executive director of the Arlington Street People's Network, which operates the city's winter shelter. They include mentally disturbed people "who have voices telling them people are after them," Sibert said. A quarter of the area's homeless have persistent mental illness.

"The biggest thing we've seen at this shelter is that if you don't have a place for people to come, you can't link them with services. You can't get them to see a mental health specialist. It's really difficult, because you feel this sense of responsibility," she said.

Sibert appealed to the county for funding that would keep the shelter open for the 88 people who used it in winter, but social services budgets are being slashed in Northern Virginia and across the Washington region.

On April 1 at the Father McKenna Center on North Capitol Street NW in the District, 25 men went back to living on the street or finding another kind of shelter. "I'm very concerned about where the men here are going to go," said the shelter's director, Tom Howarth.

Last year at this time, Howarth said, he saw a former shelter resident wandering the streets April 2. "I asked him, 'Where did you sleep last night?' " Howarth said.

The man, whom Howarth identified only as Tony, said that he hadn't slept and that he had wandered around Union Station all night. According to Howarth, when he asked why Tony didn't go to a shelter, the man said, "I'm a drug addict, and drugs are available in that shelter. I don't want to use."

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