The mannequins — faceless and made mostly of gray duct tape — wear worn and baggy clothing, like a homeless person might.
They have been positioned in office buildings and public spaces across Fairfax County, a deliberate and sometimes off-putting attempt to bring attention to a societal problem that, in this wealthy Northern Virginia suburb, is mostly hidden from public view.
“It freaked me out a little bit,” said Laurie Cunningham, who on Thursday attended a bluegrass concert inside the county government center, where a few of the mannequins had been placed in the audience, including one that resembled a small girl. “At first, I thought it was a real person.”
Each mannequin bears a placard telling the story of a homeless person in the county — be it a teenager who aged out of foster care, a military veteran unable to find steady income or a family that sleeps in the woods or a car between trips to school and work.
Some advocates for the homeless worry that the county’s campaign could reinforce negative stereotypes or make light of a serious problem. But Fairfax officials say it takes creativity to remind people that roughly 1,200 of the county’s 1.1 million residents do not have a bed to sleep in at night.
There are people “who have come up to me and said ‘They really scare me’ and ‘I saw a mannequin and walked away,’ ” said Dean Klein, who heads the county’s Office to Prevent and End Homelessness.
“Interestingly, that’s the same type of reaction many people have when they see a homeless person. They try to avoid them. They don’t give eye contact, and there’s a level of fear.”
The 40 mannequins created for the county’s effort have been on display since April inside building lobbies and government offices and at the occasional outdoor festival. The idea was inspired by a similar effort in Cleveland.
The Fairfax government’s Web site encourages people to post online “selfies” with the mannequins as a way of spreading the word. The placards describing each creation include the hashtag #ItsTimeToEndHomelessness.
“I think it’s very powerful,” Vince Krevinas, 67, said after noticing one of the mannequins in the county government center. “When I first saw it, I didn’t know what it was, but it got my attention.”
A few business groups and nonprofit organizations have paid $200 for the privilege of displaying the dummies in their offices or some other permissible location. The money — $800 has been collected so far — will support a county program for homeless veterans.
But Klein said there are other business groups and some malls that have refused to take them in, worrying that customers would be turned off by the display.
“It would almost be like they were a live individual,” Klein said.
A mannequin that represents a U.S. military veteran sits inside the Chantilly offices of the Dulles Regional Chamber of Commerce. Staffers there recently took it to a business lunch to prompt a discussion of homelessness.
Chamber President Eileen Curtis said her organization sees the campaign as addressing the need for more affordable housing so that those who work in Fairfax can afford to live there, too. “It’s a moral issue, but it’s also an economic issue,” Curtis said. “Homelessness is everybody’s problem.”
Lauri Swift, a membership director for the chamber, sits at a desk that is directly across from the mannequin, which on a recent day was slightly slumped in a chair and holding an American flag.
“It’s distracting, initially,” Swift said, adding that some visitors have told her that it seemed “scary.”
That fear factor has fueled distaste for the campaign among some advocates for the homeless, who say they worry that it stirs negative feelings about homelessness — ones that the campaign is trying to erase. None of the advocates wanted to publicly criticize the campaign, however, citing its good intentions and their organizations’ reliance on the county government for funding.
“It’s creating visibility and awareness, which is hard to do in a wealthy county. That’s the first step in addressing solutions,” said Michelle Krocker, director of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance.
But, she added, “The way to end homeless is through affordable housing,” not mannequins or other gimmicks. “We’re just not creating enough housing that’s affordable to people who make $20,000 and $30,000 a year.”
Fairfax County Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) said he asked for a child mannequin to be placed in the lobby of his Franconia office to highlight the fact that there are about 400 homeless children in the county. “They’re out there through no fault of their own,” McKay said. “These are our kids.”
The mannequin that was delivered resembled a young adult. Its placard describes an 18-year-old who became homeless after leaving foster care. Some constituents have walked into the office, glanced at the figure that sits huddled in a hooded sweatshirt and politely volunteered to wait to be helped, aides to McKay said.
Klein said the campaign will last through the fall. Among the places the county would like to place mannequins next, he said, is busy Reston Town Center, where on a recent afternoon people ate lunch on outdoor cafe patios or lined up in front of an array of food trucks while children danced between columns of water shooting up from a plaza fountain.
Clark Peklo, who works nearby and lives in Loudoun County, was spending his lunch break strumming his guitar, his case open for donations. He said he hadn’t heard of the mannequin campaign. And he also hasn’t seen very many homeless people in the area.
“Sometimes, you see them crossing the street,” he said. “I think the police pretty much keep them out.”