The recent closing of Northern Virginia's only emergency overnight cold weather shelter and difficulties in opening others have advocates for the homeless worried that people could freeze in the streets this winter.
About 120 beds that have provided overnight stays at Carpenter's Shelter in Alexandria were lost this fall after the facility moved to a new location where it lacks a permit to house people overnight on an emergency basis. In its previous location, the shelter included a hypothermia unit, where homeless people could get a cot and a hot meal for a night.
Efforts by the Northern Virginia Planning District Commission to set up a regional overnight shelter have so far failed to get off the ground, according to officials at the commission.
Also, the opening of a 40-bed shelter in Loudoun has been delayed until March. A Prince William group's plans to use a trailer for temporary shelter has been stymied by a lack of county permits.
Most shelters in Northern Virginia focus on longer-term care instead of overnight shelter, and so far, no jurisdictions have emergency plans to open buildings. In Maryland, however, the number of overnight beds has increased during the last year, and officials there say they will open public buildings if more people need a respite from the weather.
The District has been doing that for years.
"Our cold weather plan has been in existence for so long it's almost automatic," said Janice Woodward, a special assistant with D.C. Department of Human Services. "It just clicks in." The city has almost 1,700 overnight shelter beds for homeless adults and plans to add about 325 this winter, she said.
In Northern Virgina, advocates for the homeless say they worry there will be too few beds.
"From all indications we're going to have a bad winter," said Gary Reynolds, director of Carpenter's Shelter, echoing fears of many who work with the homeless that the slumping economy will force more people onto the streets. "We've got all these factors hitting us this year that we haven't had in years."
"I think it's going to be a bit more grim than we've experienced in the past and I'm worried," said Jana Graves, president of the Association of Shelter Directors of Northern Virginia.
John Boldosser, who runs the Operation Love food bank out of his Woodbridge home, said his group is ready to pay the $25,000 bill to operate a trailer shelter for 18 people. He made the proposal in September, but county officials say it will take at least six months to complete the paperwork for permits.
"All we're interested in is keeping the people alive at night," he said. "They won't say no; they won't say yes. They won't do anything. It's the most frustrating thing I've ever gone through."
County Social Services Director Ricardo Perez said the unit would be welcomed, especially since a church network that housed 45 people last winter has been replaced by a 30-bed shelter that is geared toward getting families back on their feet, instead of taking people off the streets.
In Maryland, a 25-bed transitional shelter is scheduled to open in a converted fire station in Montgomery in December. Chuck Short, the county's director of family resources, said the shelter can handle people for overnight emergencies.
"We'll be in better shape this year than last," he said. Short said the executive office building in Rockville will open its lobby if the weather gets really bad.
Prince George's is opening public buildings for the second year on an emergency basis. There are nearly 400 beds in the county, but as many as 1,000 homeless people on any given night, said Paul Bifoss, coordinator of the homeless program.
To compensate for the loss at Carpenter's, the Alexandria City Council recently approved a cold weather policy that allows shelters in the city to go over capacity and work together in emergencies. It includes plans for adding 25 beds at local churches in crisis weather situations.
The Northern Virginia Planning District Commission is working on a new blueprint for counties to share the burden of dealing with the homeless. But so far, "There seem to be real philosophical differences" between how jurisdictions want to handle the problem, said Michelle Smith, a planner with the commission.