Arlington's first and only county-supported shelter for homeless men is receiving quiet support these days, despite concerns expressed a year ago by some residents and County Board members that such a home might create problems in its new neighborhood.
Last July, the County Board voted 3 to 2 to open the shelter in a county-owned building at 1313 N. Veitch St. But the vote came only after a tense three-hour public hearing at which the home's future neighbors, concerned with safety issues, battled against representatives of church and charitable groups who supported the idea of a shelter.
Board members took up the issue again last month, this time with far less controversy. With one member absent, the board unanimously approved renewing the shelter's permit for one year.
"It's been going quite well," said County Board Chairman John Milliken, who voted against setting up the shelter on Veitch Street a year ago because he objected to the residential location. "I think the board feels this is something we ought to be doing."
The shelter, a two-story red brick home in the middle of the Courtlands area, has served as temporary housing for more than 225 men since it opened Oct. 22, according to Karen Percy, assistant to the director of Arlington's Department of Human Services.
The house can accommodate up to 14 men at a time and is open to men 18 or older, who may stay a maximum of three weeks, Percy said. Since it opened, the home has averaged a 90 percent occupancy rate, with an average length of stay of nine to 10 days, she said.
According to a report by the Department of Human Services covering the period from late October to late May, the shelter housed 194 men, 100 of whom were Arlingtonians. During that 209-day period, the house was filled to capacity 100 nights. Although more than 50 percent of those who checked into the house were unemployed, about 40 percent of those same men were employed when they left. During the 209-day period, 222 men were turned away from the shelter because of lack of space.
Percy said that Arlington community and church groups began pushing for a county-supported shelter for homeless men in the fall of 1983.
"The homeless had come to everyone's attention at that point," she said. "We began to see more people seeking service."
In the spring of 1984, after the February closing of a shelter at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center on South Kenmore Street, the County Board agreed to allocate $100,000 during fiscal 1985 for the operation of a shelter for homeless men. The funds were to be used to renovate the interior of the house and pay for staffing expenses, household items and food. The board's commitment to the project was contingent on an agreement with Arlington's Salvation Army that that group would manage the day-to-day operations of the home.
When the Veitch Street shelter opened, it became the third official shelter in Arlington and the second shelter in the county to receive county funding, Percy said.
Since the late 1970s, the Department of Human Services has given financial support to Arlington Community Temporary Shelter Inc., a short-term home for women and families that gives priority to abused women in danger. In addition, a community-supported shelter for men at the Our Lady Queen of Peace Church on S. 19th St. has been in existence since the 1970s.
Dana Kinder, the Salvation Army volunteer who manages the Veitch Street home, runs a tightly controlled shelter, following guidelines set by the County Board. The house is staffed by at least one person 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Men must leave the shelter by 7:45 a.m. and may not return until 5 p.m. Meals are served at 7 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Lights go out at 11 p.m, and drugs and alcohol are not allowed on the premises. Loitering in the neighborhood is forbidden.
Although a man may stay at the shelter for as long as three weeks, he must show after three days that he is taking steps toward self-sufficiency if he wants to remain at the home. "He has to show us he is making a positive effort," Kinder said, explaining that the men are expected to be seeking jobs or participating in some kind of counseling.
"Most of them like the fact that there are rules," he added. "They want safety."
Kinder said he has received more requests for housing during the warmer months and thinks many men come to Arlington looking for construction jobs during the summer and find themselves without a place to live. He estimated that in the first nine days of July he turned away between 35 and 40 men because the shelter was full.
According to Percy, there were only six nights in May when there was a free bed at the shelter, and the average occupancy rate for that month was 98 percent. In June, the occupancy rate averaged 93 percent, she said.
Since the shelter opened, local police and county officials have received a few complaints about the men loitering during the day.
Neighborhood reaction to the shelter is mixed, with residents who have children tending to be more opposed to the home. One thing seems evident: Even the neighbors who still oppose the shelter seem more relaxed about it now than they were last July.
Rita White, who lives a block from the shelter, said she spoke against the home at the County Board meeting a year ago. Although she has complained about loitering, she said of the shelter, "We can live with it."
Linda Devore, a mother of two teen-age daughters, who lives up the street from the shelter, said the home makes her somewhat nervous. "I don't like the men walking up and down the street, but there haven't been any problems," she said. "I don't feel as uneasy as I did."
Some other neighbors are not concerned at all.
David Shapiro, who lives nearby, said he feels perfectly safe. "I rent," he said. "I might feel differently if I owned it or had children."
Because the Veitch Street shelter sits in an area scheduled to undergo massive redevelopment, the county staff is looking for a potential new site for the home. Board members agree that they are anxious to avoid placing the shelter in a neighborhood. But they also agree that they would like the home to be relatively near public transportation.
For the current fiscal year, which began July 1, the board allocated $73,000 for the home, Percy said. Since no further renovation is necessary and most of the food is donated by community and church groups, the funds will keep the shelter operating at the same level as last year, she said. Additionally, the shelter has received about $20,000 from United Way.