It’s a cold Tuesday evening just before six and Janet Qualters is stacking a fruit bowl, making sure everything is laid out properly for the 12 hungry residents who will be entering the doors of Falls Church Winter Emergency Homeless Shelter any minute.
Although serving dinner for most of the approximately 120 nights the shelter is open from Dec. 1 into March each year is nothing new to the 11-year volunteer, Qualters says this year’s shelter operation is different. The facility shelters and feeds around 65 different individuals a year, and it’s never been an easy task.
Now in the 12th year of its inception the nighttime shelter, which opened this last Friday, is facing problems with the Fairfax County Health Department regarding food service standards.
In the past the shelter has not needed a permit or official license to operate, documents required mainly of restaurants and grocery stores.
However, recent events have caused the Health Department to enforce a strict rule that requires all food at shelters throughout its jurisdiction to come from an officially licensed source, and be stored in officially-certified refrigerators. Such units are well out of the shelter’s budget, based mostly on private contributions and some support from City Hall.
“It was a surprise, since we’ve never had a problem with sicknesses in the past,” said six-year volunteer and Shelter Chair Ron Brousseau, “This [ruling] makes it much more difficult and costly to operate the shelter, because it eliminates, among other things, families in our community volunteering to make home-cooked meals.”
He said, “People don’t want to just give money, they want to genuinely help, and this certainly makes that tougher.”
Both Brousseau and Qualters agree that the community support has been a vital lifeline to the self-supporting shelter, which provides beds to ten men and two women each night during the winter’s harshest months.
“The churches have really been our backbone in terms of providing supplies and other staples,” said Qualters, “But we wouldn’t be able to operate without the people and families within the community.”
Perhaps no better example of this is George Mason High School, whose senior class will bring dinner every Tuesday as part of its community service project.
While Mason’s senior class has remained involved in community service work before, they traditionally have taken a more standby approach, such as donating money said Class President Anna Duning.
Duning, along with Mason’s other senior class-elected officers, elected the shelter as this year’s community project and have managed to find ways to help despite the Health Department’s new restrictions.
“We were hoping every week to get four different seniors to bring food,” explained Duning, “although that may be harder now because it has to be all store-bought food.”
So far, the officers are using money from their homecoming dance proceeds, but plan on having more fundraisers to aid this year’s more hands-on approach.
This particular Tuesday, Mason’s first dinner features bags of store-bought salads, cookies, bread and rotisserie chickens, enough to easily feed those occupying the shelters’ 12 beds.
Unfortunately, as New Hope Housing (a Northern Virginia shelter provider) employee Pam Anderson checks the chickens’ temperatures, there will be no opportunity to hold onto leftovers.
“Part of the new rules state that we can’t keep anything longer than four hours,” said Brousseau, who has been a volunteer for six years. “Last year we could refrigerate and store what wasn’t eaten and the residents could make sandwiches to take with them for lunch, but now everything opened must be used immediately or thrown away.”
It is these new mandates, announced just a week before the shelter opened, that caught both the employed New Hope staff and around 25 area volunteers by surprise.
Gone are the packed lunches donated by scout troops in years past or homemade lasagna trays brought in by families. Expenses have skyrocketed for things like ketchup, mustard and salad dressing which are now bought in individual packages and the decision to also carry longer-lasting but more expensive instant milk, has been met with difficulty, but enthusiasm.
“We have two great volunteers who are getting up at 6 a.m. to buy cold milk,” said Qualters. “They’re simply wonderful, picking it up and delivering it each morning. I call it the ‘milk run,’” she laughs.
But there is no humor in the crippling effects these newfound costs may have. Although the City Council recently discussed the issue in a work session, any resolution on significant changes remains to be seen.
“The City [of Falls Church] has been highly supportive throughout our tenure,” Brousseau told the News-Press. “If not for them we wouldn’t even have this,” he says, gesturing around the shelter’s cozy interior.
The shelter, located at 217 Gordon Street, occupies the vacant second floor of the city-owned building, and is able to operate rent and utility-free, courtesy of the City.
Although donations from the City and local restaurant support has aided the shelter in years past and is uninhibited by the new mandates, Brousseau says cutting out the family element, using homemade meals and leftovers, will put a significant dent in an operation that costs upwards of $90,000 a year to run.
While the City Council is working on finding alternatives, Qualters acknowledges the shelter’s biggest problem: its overwhelming success.
There are roughly 250 homeless people a year in the Falls Church/Fairfax area and only 144 beds available to them. Although the Emergency Shelter makes daily calls to other local shelters that may have space, it is a small solution to a big problem.
Last year the overflow shelter had to turn away 60 people, and this year’s number could be even higher.
“Usually our first week open is more of a build-up in terms of residents and beds filled, but this year we were full on our second night,” said Qualters.
One thing that does remain constant each year is the efforts of the area residents. “There is so much community involvement, and word of mouth in getting people to help make a change,” she said. “Last year we had churches, families, friends, even the City mayor bring food by. Stacy’s Coffee Parlor had a sign-up sheet at its counter. It’s just incredible.”
In one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in Virginia, the shelter hopes the City Council can find ways to keep Falls Church residents active participants in fighting area homelessness.
“We are just a drop in the bucket,” said Brousseau, “but an important one.”