Federal funds keep Fairfax County homeless programs afloat

By Kali Schumitz
Fairfax County Times
Thursday, May 27, 2010

There are signs that Fairfax County's new approaches to preventing and ending homelessness are working, but nonprofit leaders caution that the programs' recent success stems from a brief spike in federal funding.

An annual count of the homeless population, completed in January, showed a nearly 11 percent decrease in the county's homeless population this year from the same time in 2009. There were 1,544 homeless people in Fairfax County in January, compared to 1,730 in January 2009.

The length of time people are staying at the county's Embry Rucker Community Shelter in Reston also is down, said Kerrie Wilson, president and chief executive of shelter operator Reston Interfaith.

Dean Klein, director of the county's Office to Prevent and End Homelessness, credits new approaches included in Fairfax's 10-year plan to end homelessness, such as the Housing Opportunities Support Teams, with preventing hundreds of families from entering the shelter system and with helping people return to stable housing sooner. The county Board of Supervisors adopted the 10-year plan in 2007.

HOST provides money to the county's nonprofit partners so they can help clients who are facing eviction pay back rent, or provide subsidies for people who already are homeless. The program also can help pay utility bills. Nonprofit directors say the largest need has been for rent assistance.

"It allows us to be able to give financial assistance for people who are right on the edge," Klein said.

The program also links families with case management services. The goal is for people to become self-sufficient in 18 months or less.

Between the launch of the program in November and the time of the count in January, the HOST program helped 104 people in 76 households maintain or obtain housing. The program has continued to assist hundreds of people since then, providing aid to 115 households in April, Klein said.

HOST was conceived as part of the county's 10-year plan to end homelessness but did not have funding until Fairfax received $2.4 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The money was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

"A lot of the success is because we have federal stimulus money," said Pamela Michell, executive director of New Hope Housing, one of the nonprofit groups helping to administer the HOST program. "If we don't have the money to provide the rent subsidy, then our hands are tied. It also made it happen more quickly."

Klein said he has heard that federal officials are realizing the benefits of the model.

"We're hopeful that there will be additional federal resources allocated," he said.

Michell said it is easier to get people back on their feet if they have not yet become homeless.

"By the time they get to the shelter, they've run out of options," she said. "If you catch people at an earlier point, the negatives haven't piled on."

Wilson said the stimulus funding has presented an opportunity to demonstrate the potential of the 10-year plan to end homelessness, adding that she thinks the progress will continue, even if federal funding disappear.

The "10-year plan is a systems change; it's not one thing or another," Wilson said. "It's more about bringing everybody in and agreeing on an approach that adds up to fewer people coming through the front doors" of the shelters.

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