Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


A coalition of the wealthy, the middle class and the poor came together last week to tackle two societal problems: homelessness and sleeplessness.

“100 Homes for 100 Homeless Arlingtonians,” a three-night blitz of well-caffeinated volunteers designed to count and interview the county’s street people, came off without a hitch.

At a Friday debriefing/pep rally at the county board room, organizers from in and outside government recapped the experience of 152 volunteers who had reported for duty at 3:00 a.m. with flashlights and data recording gear. Twelve teams fanned across Arlington to predetermined locations and spent four hours approaching strangers sleeping outdoors to determine the most vulnerable, who might require immediate aid.

Sample results: Out of 185 souls approached, 153 were interviewed. Some 80 percent are male, 70 percent are unsheltered (the rest were from the county shelter, the jail or the hospital); and 15 percent are veterans (most honorably discharged).

The 100 homes effort pools the leadership of Arlington’s social service providers and the skilled professionalism of the nonprofit Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network (A-SPAN). Its recipe also requires local philanthropies, business, faith groups and highly unselfish individuals, who in turn coordinate with the larger 1,000 homes for Virginia effort and another for 100,000 homes nationwide.

The ambitious nightowl census shows Arlington’s “willingness to tackle tough social problems,” said task force co-chair and county board member Barbara Favola.

“The homeless can’t just turn up the heat, wrap a blanket around the kids or toss another log on the fire,” said co-chair John Shooshan, a real estate developer. He promised to raise a half-million dollars towards housing and wrap-around services that form part of the county’s 10-year plan that already includes 150 supported residential units, with 77 coming next year.

The survey revealed information about causes of homelessness, which-not surprisingly-include alcoholism, drug abuse and mental illness in addition to poverty and unemployment.

The speedily oriented survey teams, each of which included a Spanish-speaker, didn’t need training to be “patient, respectful, persistent and compassionate,” as an A-SPAN staffer put it. Dozens of the time-donors showed up Friday in red T-shirts reading “I helped end homelessness.” There was lots of joshing about the importance of hot coffee. (Several days’ worth of java and pastry were supplied by Starbucks, Bayou Bakery, Harris Teeter, Heidelberg Pastry Shoppe, Pastries by Randolph and the Santa Fe Café.)

The vols also were celebrated in a slide show that included photos of their address-less clients (used by permission) who, without this initiative, would likely have stayed “invisible” in the dark folds off the main drags of Shirlington or Rosslyn.

The 100 homes project is a cross-community symphony of coordination with the police, Parks and Recreation, the sheriff’s department and Northern Virginia Hospital Center. Impressively, county board members Mary Hynes and Jay Fisette showed up bleary-eyed to pitch in during the wee hours despite a board meeting that had droned on until 1 a.m.

Hynes promised that the county has set aside funds to allow the Arlington shelter to stay open beyond just the cold season, though policy obstacles remain. It’s a move that would thrill A-SPAN executive director Kathleen Sibert, who told me a “low-barrier” year-round shelter open daytime is crucial for linking the homeless to vital services that build long-term change.
Certainly the challenge of ending homelessness is a year-round endeavor.



Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at cclarkjedd@aol.com