For the 34 children and adults who have checked into Prince William County's new homeless shelter since it opened last week, the 30-day stay that the shelter provides gives them a chance to turn their lives around.
The Homelessness Prevention Center, located on Route 1 in Woodbridge, functions differently than two existing nonprofit emergency shelters in the county. Would-be residents must sign a contract committing themselves to a specific recovery program that can include everything from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and high school equivalency degree classes to required visits to employment agencies.
"It is not our intention to let them just live here without making a serious effort to get back on their feet," said Marty G. Katzenstein, shelter director.
Several people who applied to enter the converted motel last week decided to leave after they heard the requirements, but the shelter remains full at 34 spaces and has had to turn away five families and three individuals. County officials estimate that 300 people are homeless in Prince William; that number includes those in shelters.
Center residents Mary and Ricardo, who asked that their last name not be used, said the structured program is exactly what they need.
The shelter "is an end to our troubles," said Mary, who is due to have a baby this week. Gesturing around the small bedroom she and her husband share with their 16-year-old son, she added, "This is not what I do year after year."
The family has been struggling financially for quite some time. They lost their Woodbridge town house more than a year ago, when they couldn't meet the mortgage payments.
"We bounced back" and moved into an apartment, Ricardo said. But then an uninsured relative crashed the family's two-month-old car. Both Mary and Ricardo lost their jobs because they couldn't get to work, and they also couldn't pay their rent.
"I want a decent life for my children, and I'm going to get it as soon as this baby comes," said Mary, who plans to get her high school degree and go back to work.
Shelter rules are strict: Residents must wake up by 7 a.m., make their beds, do daily chores, check in at 9 p.m., be in their own rooms by 11 p.m. and turn their lights out by midnight. Communal meals and periodic meetings reinforce the sense of community at the shelter.
"You can't smoke in your rooms and that's good because it gets people out of their rooms," said Kim, 23, who is living at the shelter with her husband and 17-month-old child. Her husband couldn't work and they were unable to pay the rent on their trailer. The family, whose members asked that their last name not be used, plans to accumulate enough money for a security deposit during the 30 days at the center.
Kim also praised the center's emphasis on goals. "They focus your mind on working your way back up the ladder instead of down."
Prince William County has budgeted $327,000 to rent and staff the facility, and the Cooperative Council of Ministries provides all of the meals for free, said housing division chief Virginia Bensten. The center will also administer the county's $142,000 program to prevent homelessness through rent subsidies and emergency mortgage payments.
The shelter is actually run by Volunteers of America, which has a contract to provide the various required services. At least one of the 10 paid staff members is on duty 24 hours a day, and Katzenstein said he hopes to attract volunteers to work overnight as well.
The center also has programs for former residents: They are encouraged to return for high school degree classes and counseling, and the center staff will monitor their progress for six months.
"I'm glad we're not in a place that says 'shelter.' It says 'homeless prevention center,' so this won't happen again," Ricardo said.