Sunrise is still hours away when the first volunteers begin trickling into the Mott Community Center in Fairfax. Armed with coffee and rain gear, they gather the supplies they’ll need for the day: maps, hygiene kits and six-page surveys with questions such as “How long have you been homeless this time?” and “How many times in the past three months have you been to the emergency room?”
Hunched over a corner table and wearing jeans and hiking shoes, the chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Sharon Bulova, who asked to come along today, is sketching a rough map to a homeless camp she has seen in the woods near her home. “We didn’t know about this one,” says a volunteer. “It’ll be our first stop.”
It’s 4 a.m. on Wednesday, the third and last day of what organizers dubbed “registry week.” In 2008, Fairfax County, the second wealthiest jurisdiction in the nation, adopted a 10-year plan to try to end homelessness among its residents. It has since made steady progress getting families into permanent housing, but success among single, chronically homeless adults has been far harder. That population, estimated to be at least several hundred people, is slowly rising, according to the county.
So Fairfax is trying something new. This summer, along with a handful of local nonprofit organizations, the county signed on to a national campaign called 100,000 Homes, run by the New York-based group Community Solutions. The campaign targets the chronically homeless, with a national goal of housing 100,000 of them by July 2014. So far, according to Community Solutions, the movement has housed more than 35,000 people in the 185 jurisdictions that have joined since 2010.
What sets 100,000 Homes apart, its advocates say, is an approach that offers permanent housing first, not last, bolstered by supportive services. Rather than imposing conditions on housing such as sobriety or employment, the campaign’s model quickly provides a stable place to live, not just a shelter bed. Then it encourages recipients to make their own choices to get jobs or treatment.
The first step is always registry week, during which trained volunteers led by county and nonprofit organization employees build a detailed database that includes photographs and personal information on as many chronically homeless people as they can find. In Fairfax last week, that meant more than 200 volunteers fanning out to winter shelters and hiking into wooded areas behind multimillion-dollar homes to take the pictures and conduct in-depth interviews — an undertaking vastly different than a traditional point-in-time homeless census that only counts bodies.
Once the information is organized, agencies will prioritize the people they met based on medical vulnerability. Then they will try to get each person housed.
After breaking into teams of five and six, the volunteers set out. The people who will go to the campsite near Bulova’s house pile into a white van. They’re led by Amanda Andere and Lisa Thompson, both of whom work for Facets, a Fairfax nonprofit organization that provides food and shelter. Other members of the team include a retiree, a college student and an Army veteran who used to be homeless.
The van pulls to the side of a dark road at the edge of Fairfax Villa Park, a heavily wooded swath near the city of Fairfax. It’s wet and cold. Using flashlights and head lamps, the team follows Bulova as she passes through the trees.
“Watch for roots and standing water,” warns the college student, Annie Nguyen, who is studying social work at George Mason University.
After about 25 minutes, nearly everyone’s feet are wet. Someone quietly asks the question that everybody is thinking.
“Are we lost?”
And then Bulova spots it. “We’re here,” she says.
“Hello? Good morning,” calls out the retiree, Court Gifford, who was recruited to volunteer by a friend.
The team finds a muddy, deflated air mattress; a wet American flag, which someone drapes carefully over a fallen tree trunk; a hatchet; a suitcase and clothes; a newspaper dated Feb. 15; a book about calligraphy; and an empty, upright water bottle.
“He probably went to a shelter last night because of the rain,” Gifford says.
With no one to interview and register, the team sloshes back to the van.
Although building the database is foremost about getting chronically homeless people into housing, the information also will help guide the county and nonprofit groups as they expand and improve their services, says Andere, the executive director of Facets. Part of the reason they must prioritize people is that the county lacks the resources to house everyone. The aim is to get at least 150 chronically homeless people into permanent housing within three years.
Maybe even more important, Andere says, the effort is about making homeless people real to their neighbors. On Monday, the agencies that gathered the information held a community debriefing where they shared some of the stories of the 462 people they met.
They also shared some statistics: Nearly a quarter of the people they found were young — between 18 and 34. About 10 percent were veterans. Roughly 40 percent had physical disabilities, and nearly half had jobs.
The most commonly cited reasons for being homeless: “unable to pay rent/utilities” and “job loss.”
“We live in a very generous community,” Andere says. “Sometimes we just need to be reminded that there are real people who need our help.”
Volunteers met people with college degrees and people who had known success. They met addicts, parents and the gravely ill.
“Everybody has a story,” Andere says.
The sun is almost up when the team reaches its next stop, a patch of woods off Route 50, near Fair Oaks Mall.
A couple of hundred feet from the road — yet somehow hidden to passing drivers — stands a small, one-room structure that looks like a miniature unfinished house, complete with a front door flanked by tiki torches. Whoever built it clearly knows construction.
“This is incredible,” Bulova says.
Thompson, the other team leader, says she knows the man who lives here. His name is Steven and he works the overnight shift at a Giant grocery store. His bike is gone, meaning he’s probably still at work, but Thompson knocks anyway. She has a card for him that lists a dental appointment she made for him. He has been losing weight because of issues with his teeth.
A few hundred yards deeper into the woods, the team comes to a makeshift tent, built from plywood and dark brown camping tarps and piled high with newspaper and trash.
Thompson knows the man who lives here, too, and she knows the name he tends to give when asked. “Is that John Wayne in there?” she calls out.
“Yeah, it’s me,” a tired voice answers.
John Wayne is practically buried inside, trying to keep warm. He declines to come out but says he’s willing to provide information, so Gifford slides himself halfway in and settles on a pile of papers. He pulls out a pen and a survey.
Is John your real name?
Will you tell us the real one?
How long have you been homeless this time?
Have you been the victim of an attack since becoming homeless?
Have you ever been in jail?
Lots of times.
Do you have any means of earning money? Are you on any wait lists for housing? How did you lose the last place you lived?
The county stole it from him, John Wayne says, because he wasn’t the right color and wasn’t a woman. They took back his food stamps, too. He says he doesn’t drink. He has recently been treated for hypothermia. He has asthma, manic depression and an anxiety disorder.
What would you need to get into housing?
“One million dollars,” John Wayne says. “And bring my mother back.”
Closer to the road, the team finds one more person to interview: a man named Dave who has kidney problems and arthritis and has been homeless since 2004. He’d kept it together before that by working construction, but then he lost his job.
“I just got off track,” he says.
The team thanks him for talking and reminds him about the nearest winter shelter.
The sun finally up, the team heads back to the van.