Tale of two Fairfaxes: Deep need remains in one of America's richest counties

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 25, 2010; 7:24 PM

Frosted glass on the storefront windows allows customers to shop in privacy. Each has 15 minutes to collect items from the small store's three aisles of groceries: a green section with cans for peas and beans, yellow for corn, and so on. Each shopper may take one of each, unless otherwise marked.

The sort of holiday shopping going on behind the frosted windows of the Western Fairfax Christian Ministries food pantry, and its thrift store next door, supplies a need in ways that the malls of Tysons Corner and other outlets in one of the nation's richest enclaves cannot.

"I never asked for food stamps," said Fresia Herrera, a naturalized citizen from Peru who has raised three children while coping with breast cancer, single parenthood and a temporary cut in hours at the hospital where she works as a nursing assistant. But she does come once a month to pick up some food to help make ends meet.

"My situation made me, pushed me, to come here," she said, shortly after visiting the food pantry recently to pick up a gift card to help pay for her family's Christmas dinner.

Although the U.S. Census Bureau's latest data again ranked Fairfax as one of the only two counties with a median income of more than $100,000 - Loudoun was the other - Fairfax social services agencies and nonprofit organizations continue to see a surge in requests from people needing emergency assistance with food, housing, utilities and transportation.

"We're seeing signs that need is extremely significant," said Dean Klein, director of the county's Office to Prevent and End Homelessness. He noted that 60 percent of adults in the county's homeless shelters have jobs. And although the overall number has dipped, partly because of federal stimulus money and an aggressive program to help families stay in their homes, there is still a waiting list of more than 100 families needing shelter.

Recent census data suggest that the differences between the two Fairfaxes has only grown during the past decade: In 1999, the richest one-fifth of county residents earned about nine times more than the poorest one-fifth. By 2006, the spread was almost 11 times more.

Stephanie Berkowitz, a vice president at Northern Virginia Family Service, a nonprofit group based in Falls Church, said there are signs of another shift as well. Early on, the recession hit new arrivals hardest. But now they are serving more people who have spent their lives in Fairfax County. In the nonprofit's "Training Futures," for example, at least half the people attending the job-training program are native Virginians, compared with about 20 to 30 percent before the recession, she said.

"Now we're seeing deeper, more entrenched need," she said.

It's been well documented since the recession began in December 2007 that poverty levels have risen and homes and jobs have been lost. But what amazes many case workers is the level of need that remains in one of the wealthiest parts of the country 18 months after the recession ended, in June 2009. The need remains steady, even as the amount of donations to some groups has slackened.

"It's a long journey for a lot of people. And the journey's becoming longer," said Kerrie Wilson, executive director of Reston Interfaith. Before the recession, the rule of thumb was that clients generally need a month's help; now it's three months and counting.

Just as some were exulting in the success reflected in the new census data, others were dealing with more sobering realities. Demand for food stamps has risen 57 percent from July 2008 to June 2010, while the overall caseload for the county's Family Services has gone up 37 percent in the same period.

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