As Northern and central Virginia boomed through the 1990s, so did Richard Hellmer.

Making $80,000 a year as a purchasing manager, Hellmer had a big house in Spotsylvania County and leased a new car each year for himself and another for his wife. Then came the fall, and it was steep.

In 1999, he found himself out of a job after cutbacks at Simmons, the mattress giant for which he had worked for 21 years. In the next few months, his 28-year marriage fell apart, both his parents died and he developed a blood clot that left him gasping for breath and facing $139,000 in medical bills. Profoundly depressed, bankrupt and estranged from his two sons and ex-wife, he went to the only place he could: the Thurman Brisben Homeless Shelter in downtown Fredericksburg.

After three months there, the 48-year-old recently found new work in purchasing, a hotel room to rent by the week and a more hopeful outlook. "If I didn't have this place, I would have killed myself. It was that bad," he said last week.

Now the question is whether Thurman Brisben will make it. The only emergency shelter for the homeless serving the fast-growing counties of Stafford, Spotsylvania, Caroline and King George and the city of Fredericksburg, the 80-bed pink brick building is scheduled to be torn down in April to make way for upscale housing and shopping.

And so far, the shelter has nowhere to go.

After a failed, two-year search for a new site, the likelihood that the shelter itself will be homeless has raised an uncomfortable aspect of the region's boom -- a growing homeless population. With the boom's new jobs can come the bust's lost jobs; with higher incomes, higher rents and a squeeze on people who are down for any of a hundred reasons.

As neighborhoods have contemplated and rejected new shelter sites, some say the process has been something of a personality crisis for the well-heeled historic city that still thinks of itself as a small town.

As Fredericksburg grows, said the Rev. Erin Sharp, an associate pastor at The Presbyterian Church, one of a group of churches involved in a major campaign to find Thurman Brisben a new home, urban issues are inevitable. "You're going to have people sleeping on benches if you don't deal with it," she said.

With the campaign's red "Save Our Shelter" signs on nearly every other lawn in Fredericksburg have come questions about the city's character and why it must struggle to find a neighborhood willing to accept such people as Hellmer.

Nearly every block in Fredericksburg is home to a large, stately church, and religion runs through much of public and private life in the city 50 miles south of Washington. As the clock has ticked down, the search for a new shelter site has been accompanied by some soul-searching: Isn't this the place that set up cots in its churches and schools for the homeless before Thurman Brisben was found? Don't maps from 1890 show a "Poor House" for the indigent?

If the shelter can't find a new location, "the city fathers might consider changing the city's motto from 'America's most historic city' to 'A town without pity,' " said Robert Lang, a Fredericksburg stockbroker who used to volunteer at a temporary church shelter.

The search also has raised the issue of race, as the city's small minority population has joined in saying no to a new shelter in two neighborhoods, both literally on the less affluent side of the railroad tracks that carry commuters to higher-paying jobs in Washington. Those two sites were among about a dozen that failed, mostly because of opposition from neighbors.

"Their point is why does it always go into a minority neighborhood?" said Bob Becker, pastor of New City Fellowship church, which sits next to a site in the Darbytown neighborhood that residents fought in a heated and emotional series of public meetings. Darbytown, like other parts of Fredericksburg, is gentrifying, and its black and Hispanic residents argued that the shelter could bring the neighborhood down.

Although some think of homelessness as an urban issue, experts say it is becoming more of a concern in rural and suburban areas across the country, particularly in instant-sprawl areas such as north-central Virginia.

"We are increasingly getting calls from rural communities, and it seems to be a little harder for those communities to accept," said Donald Whitehead, executive director of the District-based National Coalition for the Homeless. "There are a lot of factors -- loss of farmland, the growth of strip malls and urban sprawl."

The Housing Assistance Council, which focuses on rural housing issues, is having a conference in Washington last week that will include homelessness. A particular problem in this area is that wealthier newcomers -- many commuting to jobs in the District or Northern Virginia -- are driving up the cost of homes and rent, while local wages remain low. Building affordable housing has not been a regional priority.

The issue is familiar to Julius Hines. On Tuesday, he sat at a table at the Brisben shelter with a printout of the names of 1,000 homeowners, praying he'd find someone willing to let him and two other shelter residents rent a two-bedroom apartment. Such apartments run about $800 a month in Fredericksburg, and the 38-year-old cook can't afford it alone on his $6.50-an-hour salary.

"I think the community cares about this place," he said of the shelter. "I just think they're scared of the word 'homeless.' "

Public community support has surged recently. More than 300 people marched last weekend in support of finding a new site in the city, carrying a mattress through the historic downtown and briefly tying up the usual Saturday antiques-hunting traffic.

Thurman Brisben has the funding -- from municipalities and donations -- to pay the $1.8 million cost of building a shelter. Of its current $389,000 budget, about 40 percent comes from donors, said Bunny Melzer, the shelter's executive director.

The longer the community takes to find a site, she said, the more taxpayers will have to pay. Residents come not only from the four counties and the city, but from along the Eastern Seaboard, because of Fredericksburg's location on Interstate 95. Melzer has tried to tally the cost of sending homeless children into foster care or adults ending up in jail instead of a shelter.

For now, the next few pages of the story are blank. The shelter won a three-month extension last week on the City Council from the Dec. 31 deadline and now has until the end of March to relocate. Three sites are under consideration, one of which neighbors oppose.

For some residents, the uncertainty of the shelter's future is just part of a horizon of unknowns.

A few years ago, Hellmer would have spent last week at home, cooking and decorating for the holidays. On Tuesday, he was volunteering at Thurman Brisben, serving clam chowder and tuna fish to residents for lunch.

Hundreds march through downtown Fredericksburg in support of finding a new home in the city for the Thurman Brisben shelter.Marsha Brooks shows support for the shelter, scheduled to be torn down to make room for housing and shopping.