Fairfax County is pushing ahead with plans to build another shelter for homeless families despite its severe budget crunch, officials said yesterday.
The 60-bed shelter, intended to serve up to 20 families, is to be built by a public-private partnership on county-owned land on Lee Highway near Stringfellow Road in western Fairfax. Plans also call for construction of two transitional housing units, each able to accommodate three families making their way from homelessness to independent living in rental units.
"This has been an issue for a long time in Fairfax," said Katherine K. Hanley (D-At Large), chairman of the Board of Supervisors and author of the motion last year setting up the partnership. "I'm glad we're finally putting together enough of the pieces to allow the shelter to move forward."
County officials said that their intention, subject to approval by the Planning Commission, is to break ground this fall and open the shelter early next year. The shelter and transitional housing are expected to comprise about 26,000 square feet of space and cost more than $3 million, including about $300,000 that the county must transfer from one government account to another to pay for up to five acres.
Helping to cover the cost will be a $1 million proffer from a Tysons Corner developer, an additional $1 million from the county's Housing Trust Fund and in-kind donations pledged by HomeAid America, a nonprofit group affiliated with the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association, Hanley said. She said the outside sources would reduce dependence on county general funds or bonds.
An earlier plan for a family shelter in the western part of the county -- there is one each in the Route 1 area, Baileys Crossroads and Reston -- fell through in August 2001 when the owners of a motel on Lee Highway rejected the county's offer and sold their six-acre property to a private buyer for a higher price. The effort to buy and demolish the 60-year-old Pleasant Acres Motel and build a family shelter on its site ran into stiff opposition from nearby homeowners, who feared the facility would hurt the value of their homes and threaten their safety.
Some of the opponents urged the county to look elsewhere and to build on county-owned land.
Last year, the county settled on a site about a mile away on Lee Highway that had been eyed for a regional storm water management pond and a police forensics facility. The county decided that the police facility was "too commercial in nature for that area" and that the proposed homeless shelter and transitional housing could more easily blend in with the neighborhood, said David Marshall of the county's Department of Planning and Zoning.
Besides the site being county-owned, Marshall said, "it is much more isolated, with much more buffer to all sides." To the west is county parkland, behind it is about five acres of unbuildable county property that could be used for the storm water pond, and to the east is a privately owned plant nursery, he said.
The need for a fourth family shelter was emphasized in reports by the county's Homeless Oversight Committee last year and the year before, said Katherine A. Froyd, who oversees homeless programs in the Department of Family Services. "We've had a huge increase in population in this county, and yet we haven't added any new beds for the homeless in about a decade," she said.
In the last five years, the number of homeless people in Fairfax has jumped at least 25 percent, reaching 2,067 last year, 40 percent of them children. With at least 60 homeless families trying to get into a shelter at any given time and facing waits of three to four months, the county has been spending about $750,000 annually to lodge the neediest in motels.
"It's expensive, and it's a dreadful way for children and families to have to live," Froyd said.
While preparing to seek formal approval for the new shelter from the Planning Commission around May, officials have been meeting with community groups to try to allay concerns.
Froyd said she's detected some "outright opposition," but believes that "it's a pretty small minority."
The shelter site's location on county land "makes it marginally easier" to proceed, County Executive Anthony H. Griffin said. "But . . . we still have to go through the public process."
Supervisor Elaine McConnell (R-Springfield), whose district includes the new site, said: "We know that shelters are desperately needed. And yet we know there are always concerns." The three other family shelters, she noted, have proved to be "no problem to their neighborhoods."