The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With tents outside county office, Fairfax reviews pledge to end homelessness

Joan McDonald moves items near her tent at a homeless encampment in Reston this week. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

In 2008, Fairfax County launched an ambitious “Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness,” with the goal of ending homelessness in the Northern Virginia suburb within 10 years.

While homelessness is down by more than a third since that deadline was set, tent encampments in the woods, including one a short walk from the satellite country government center in Reston, show the goal of reducing the number to zero is still far from reach.

The county Board of Supervisors recently ordered a review of the Fairfax homelessness-prevention efforts, joining other localities in the region that have been struggling with a problem that, while diminishing, has become more visible during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some supervisors expressed frustration over the limited progress after several hundred people returned to the streets earlier this spring, prompted by the closure of seasonal hypothermia shelters that operate between December and April, and the end of a pandemic program in March that housed the homeless inside hotels.

“Some things never change and that is very, very troubling,” Supervisor Penelope Gross (D-Mason) said Tuesday before the board approved a motion for the review.

Nearly 1,200 people in Fairfax are considered to be homeless, according to a spot count conducted in January. That is about 35 percent lower than the homeless population count in the county in 2008.

But, after a spike in homelessness in 2020, there are 204 more homeless people in Fairfax now than there were in 2018, according to a report on homelessness in the region published earlier this month by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Some use their cars are their beds in this wealthy Virginia suburb

With an estimated 282 adults sleeping in the streets, while others stay in emergency shelters or some other form of temporary housing, county officials are searching for ways to add more shelter beds and housing options in Fairfax.

There are six county-owned emergency shelters in Fairfax operated by local nonprofits with a total of 510 beds in a mix of space set aside for individual adults or entire families. Some facilities have a waitlist of several hundred people to get inside.

There are also 670 beds available inside supportive housing complexes that offer mental health counseling, job training, financial literacy and other services, in addition to a place to sleep, also with long waitlists. Other programs offer emergency rental and utility payments and access to affordable child care to people in danger of losing their homes.

The Board of Supervisors directed county staff to search for sites where more supportive housing could be developed. The county will also investigate building more emergency shelters in commercial and industrial areas of Fairfax, a more viable option after the pandemic forced some businesses to shut down.

Sarah Selvaraj D’Souza, executive director of Reston Strong, said her community group has been lobbying for that alternative. The organization, originally formed in 2020 to provide aid to those suffering from the pandemic, has helped dozens of homeless people who have been living in tents in the Reston area.

She pointed out several large commercial sites around the community that would make good candidates for temporary housing. A Best Buy store recently shut down and is vacant. A shuttered Inova Hospital rehabilitation center for the elderly has been vacant since 2014, used as a place to sleep by some homeless residents until, in February, they were forced to leave the facility, which is boarded up and scheduled to be demolished. “We have plenty of space here,” she said.

In April, Reston Strong sought to bring more urgency to the issue by helping people who were forced to leave a nearby hypothermia shelter after it shut down for the season to set up tents outside the Fairfax county North Governmental Center, home to the office of Supervisor Walter Alcorn (D-Hunter Mill) and a county police station.

Many of those people had previously been staying inside area hotels through the county Quarantine, Protection, Isolation and Decompression Program, launched in 2020 as a way to guard against the spread of the coronavirus.

But that temporary program ended in March, in part because coronavirus vaccinations are now widely available in Fairfax but also because area nonprofits struggled to keep it staffed and hotel rooms were harder to find after the tourism industry rebounded in the area.

“We don’t want people to be living in tents. That is absolutely not what we are advocating for,” Selvaraj D’Souza said. “But what options did they have?”

All but two of those tents are now gone after the “Neighbors in Tents” campaign, involving food and water donations to the tent dwellers, garnered some publicity. The tent dwellers moved to a nearby wooded area.

But the message resonated with county officials. Alcorn created a community task force whose mission will be to craft a master plan for the Reston area that will include more permanent supportive housing and upgrades to the Embry Rucker emergency shelter.

How is the pledge from Mayor Bowser to end homelessness going?

“We do need more shelter beds,” Alcorn said during an interview, calling it “a moral obligation” to provide as many solutions as possible to people without homes. “We are short.”

Another obstacle has been the inability of local nonprofits and religious organizations that operate homelessness-prevention programs to maintain staff and volunteers, a problem related to stress and lower pay than what one might earn in the private sector that has been made worse by concerns about coronavirus infection, county officials said.

“Turnover is typically quite high among the staff at the shelters,” said Thomas Barnett, deputy director of the Office to Prevent and End Homelessness. “That creates challenges, in creating stability and high quality services.”

Maura Williams, vice president of housing and community services at the Cornerstones nonprofit organization, said it was particularly difficult to keep staff working under the county hotel program. Cornerstones had operated one of the six hotels used for that program, serving about 90 people, with the understanding that it would be for three months. Then the program was extended several times.

“It was great for the program, but you lose staff when that happens because they had an understanding that it was going to end on a certain date,” Williams said. “During the pandemic, we were in a constant state of hiring. I don’t think we were ever able to stop and say, ‘Okay. We are fully staffed.’”

Jeffrey C. McKay (D-At large), chair of the county board, said the local homeless problem could be a lot worse after thousands of people lost jobs during the pandemic in a region where affordable housing is hard to come by.

That shows that many of the homelessness-prevention programs in the county have been working, he said. But, as some people get off the streets, others become newly homeless, making it “feel like you are kind of on a treadmill,” he added.

The review of the county homelessness-prevention plan is meant to discover “what is working with regularity?” he said. “What is a waste of resources? What is something another jurisdiction is doing that’s a best practice that we need to try to experiment with here?”

Outside her tent in the woods near the government center in Reston, Joan McDonald said she just wants a place she and her unemployed friend can afford on the $24 per hour salary she makes as a bus driver.

McDonald, 48, has been homeless since 2016, after her brother asked her to leave his home in Springfield to make room for their ailing parents. She and her friend, who became homeless after her husband left, have been in their tent in Reston since February.

Subsidized apartments they have been offered are still too expensive at around $1,500 a month, when they factor in other expenses, McDonald said. “It hurts,” she said, sitting at a picnic table in her bus driver uniform after just finishing a shift.