Standing behind a rambler off a gravel road north of Leesburg, taking a quick break from a renovation project, Bob Beech lamented having to turn away the homeless.
"It doesn't take much to have a mother and four kids, and if we don't have bed space, that's five turn-aways," Beech said.
In Loudoun County, one of the richest and fastest growing counties in America, Beech and his colleagues had 612 turn-aways in 2004, 204 of them children, he said. That's up from 321 in 2003.
"The worst part of the job is someone calling, needing bed space, and you don't have a bed," said Beech, a part-time golf course supervisor who oversees one of the homeless shelters run by the Good Shepherd Alliance, a Loudoun-based religious charity.
Northern Virginia has too few homeless shelters to cover its growing needs, Beech said. Around the Washington region, a census organized by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in January counted 11,419 people who had no shelter at all, were in temporary emergency shelters or temporary transitional housing, or were "in precarious housing and at imminent risk of losing it."
Another 4,020 people were classified as among the "permanently supported homeless." That included people who were being provided housing by governments or charities but were at risk of becoming homeless again because of mental illnesses, physical disabilities or extreme poverty.
The count is difficult. Surveyors check the streets and places such as emergency shelters and longer-term homes, though they can miss individuals who reside out of view or aren't receiving assistance. In Loudoun, the Council of Governments found 93 people who had no shelter or were living in temporary or precarious situations. Another 10 individuals were living in supported housing, but were at risk of losing it.
Mark Gunderman, a member of Good Shepherd's board, said the group has sought to extend its reach to keep up with demand.
"Since the 9/11 tragedy, the number of people calling to register in our shelters has increased and thus the number of people being turned away has skyrocketed. This was due to many people losing jobs in the service industry," Gunderman said.
To deal with the shortfall in bed space, the group opened a drop-in center on Sycolin Road in Leesburg in February 2004. It also serves as an overnight "warming center" when the temperature falls below 35 degrees.
"On the coldest nights, when all community shelters are filled, it will function as a safety net," Gunderman said. The center also provides access to mailboxes, storage lockers, a telephone and the Internet, to help with job searches.
Gunderman said the Purcellville Town Council recently agreed to allow the group to rent a home for single or pregnant women. Good Shepherd will renovate the dilapidated building, he said.
There are 12 beds at the group's men's shelter in Ashburn, and 24 in the shelter for women and children north of Leesburg, where Beech was testing his carpentry skills on a recent afternoon.
Those who take beds in the group's shelters must find paying jobs or otherwise work to become self-sufficient, Beech said.
"Frankly, if you can't find a job in Loudoun County, it's because you don't want to work," he said. The Council of Governments survey found that in Loudoun County, 79 percent of homeless adults in families have jobs.
Beech's residents, who can stay up to 89 days, have to put much of their wages into an escrow fund set up to help them when they leave. Weekly spiritual counseling is also part of the program, but is voluntary, he said.
The group runs a thrift store, holds an annual golf tournament and relies on donations from churches and individuals to fund much of its operations. Many residents and firms also donate time.
Greenvest LC, a Tysons Corner-based development firm, recently closed its headquarters for a day and bused more than 60 employees to the women and children's shelter, known as Hebron, for a day-long renovation and team-building exercise that included $15,000 in donated materials. Among the improvements were freshly painted walls and a colorful new jungle gym set in a newly mulched playground.
"You see this? How do you think that paint got on there?" said Willie L. Collins, who sells homes for Greenvest in Prince George's County and proudly pointed to a still-sticky gazebo. "There are some people unable to help themselves and this is good."