She was slender and fragile-looking, dressed in torn jeans and a T-shirt. Her left eye was severely bruised, evidence of the most recent altercation with her "boyfriend." George McManmon, a leader in Fairfax County's shelter movement, brought her in from the street that cold night in February 1985.
"This is my friend Patsy," he said. I wrote down her name -- No. 28 on our guest list that evening -- and asked the customary question: "Will you be back tomorrow night, Patsy?"
"I have no idea," she answered.
Patsy was one of the homeless in Northern Virginia who had been living in cars, shacks, an abandoned warehouse -- wherever. Then three years ago, after a homeless man was found frozen to death, volunteers from local churches established and staffed temporary shelters in their church basements and meeting rooms.
I was working at a shelter in Bailey's Crossroads the night Patsy arrived. We had already taken in six women and had no more beds in the women's section. I was prepared to put down blankets on the floor of the room that served as our supply room and office, rather than send Patsy, who was pregnant, out into the cold. However, McManmon contacted the county's social services office, and Patsy was placed in a motel for the night.
What of the rest of the 32 guests who were spending the night in the basement of St. Paul's Episcopal Church? At least half were "regulars." What had been intended as a temporary emergency shelter had become a way of life for these unfortunate people, many of whom were mentally ill.
Most of our guests ranged in age from about 18 to 30. They were different from the street people in the city. In fact, one young couple had come from West Virginia to look for jobs in Washington. A kindly D.C. policeman had supplied them with Metro fare thinking they didn't belong in the city's shelters.
Some of our younger guests had jobs. Some even had cars. But the one thing they all lacked was a place to live. In a county that has close to the highest per-capita income in the United States (or perhaps because of that fact) they could not find an apartment they could afford or could not scrape together enough money to pay a month's rent plus a security deposit.
Among those with jobs (some of whom requested a wake-up call for 5 a.m.), we had carpenters and painters, whose work was seasonal or dependent on the weather. Others worked part time at fast-food restaurants -- hired at the minimum wage to help out during peak hours.
The location of the shelter changed each week, rotating among churches that could provide the space. On Sunday evening, the shelter guests were given directions to the new location. Each Monday morning, volunteers loaded up the cots, blankets and towels and transported them to the next site.
Four shelters were operating in Fairfax County during the winters of 1983-84 and 1984-85. All were run by church members.
Then last year the county finally recognized its obligation to its homeless citizens. In the Bailey's Crossroads area it set up several trailers and a day room, which house 50 people. A permanent shelter in a building near Fort Belvoir has been serving up to 50 of the homeless in the Mount Vernon area. In Reston, the community room in the governmental center accommodates up to 22 persons while a permanent 50-bed shelter is being built. Both shelters are being operated by church-related groups under contract to the county.
In addition to these walk-in shelters, which take only individuals, two other residences provide shelter for families, usually women with children.
What can be done about the homeless?
First, for the chronically mentally ill, we must provide more supervised residences in the community, more day-treatment programs, more rehabilitation centers. We need more therapists and case workers to reduce the caseload (currently as high as 70 in Northern Virginia). Only then can the mentally ill hope to obtain the services they need, when they need them.
Second, affordable housing must be made available for low- and moderate-income people in the community. Right now less than 50 percent of Fairfax County police officers have their homes in the county. High rental costs and real estate prices in Northern Virginia force many teachers, firemen and other county workers to travel long distances to their jobs. Perhaps one solution would be to require developers of large subdivisions to build housing in a range of prices as a condition for obtaining the necessary zoning.
And for those young people trying to support themselves on minimum-wage jobs, we might consider county-subsidized boarding houses to ensure them a roof over their heads.
To solve the problems of the homeless will require a great deal of money. It will probably require higher taxes. But whatever it requires, we must begin. We are our brother's keeper, and we cannot stand by while so many of our fellow human beings exist in subhuman conditions. -- Muriel B. Strickland