Even with the unseasonably warm winter the Northern Virginia area has experienced, the Falls Church Homeless Shelter, a winter shelter operated in the City of Falls Church, has still had to turn away upwards of 40 people this season. The shelter will operate one more month this season, to April 1.
The shelter, which has beds for 10 men and two women, meets capacity nearly every night. Residents, whose stays are on average 30-35 days, can reserve a bed for the following night via a sign-up sheet, and must call and check in to confirm that they will be staying at the shelter to ensure no bed goes unfilled.
The average numbers of those looking for a bed for the night who cannot be accommodated is between 60 and 70 a season, but some years that number has been more than 100. While they may be turned away from the shelter, they don’t leave without some assistance first. Shelter staffers call other area shelters to find open beds, and provide transportation or bus fare to those locations.
“We want everybody to receive a shelter for the night,” said Lance Flowers, a program coordinator with New Hope Housing who works at the shelter.
Those who stay at the shelter are provided with a bed and linens, and the use of shower facilities, storage for their belongings, communal space in which to socialize, a computer, and television, as well as dinner and breakfast provided by religious groups in the community.
In addition to meeting needs with these tangible goods, the shelter’s professional staff and volunteers also provide workshops on accessing outside sources, the services of a case manager who visits the site several times a week, and life skills classes that teach residents “things that they can go and try to fulfill their goals with, or improve their situations with,” Flowers said.
Through an intake process for new residents, staff members determine the needs and goals of each resident and “get a little history of their background,” Flowers said.
The shelter is open seven days a week every winter season from Dec. 1 to April 1, allowing homeless people in the area to come in from the cold during its operating hours of 6 p.m. – 8 a.m. According to statistics from the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Partnership on Ending Homelessness, about 1,550 people in the area are homeless.
The Falls Church Homeless Shelter was first opened when a group of community volunteers came together in 1995. That group, the Friends of the Falls Church Homeless Shelter, opened its first shelter in January 1996, with the hopes of addressing hypothermia and homelessness during the winter months.
Joanne Maughlin, reverend at the shelter and chair of the Friends of the Falls Church Homeless Shelter board, said volunteers were inspired to form the group when area churches were asked by a local homeless shelter if they could provide winter assistance for those without homes in the community. Volunteers soon realized that the City needed a shelter to help those in need.
“It became a community affair, which has been the best thing that could have happened,” Maughlin said.
Volunteers staffed the shelter, then located on Broad Street, during its first season. The demands upon volunteers to work the overnight shift at the shelter was great, but the Friends were able to hire professionals the next year to work with volunteers to cover shifts and make sure the needs of the residents were met. The board currently works with New Hope Housing, a Northern Virginia non-profit which provides specialized services for homeless families and adults in the area.
“We saw very quickly that we didn’t have the professional people to do that kind of work,” Maughlin said. “We open the shelter, and we take care of the shelter, and we provide the budget for the shelter, but we don’t have the professional expertise. Lance and the others, the staff people, really work with the residents.”
Between 50 and 70 volunteers now work shifts at the shelter, but including those who provide food and services to the shelter, the total number of people who lend a helping hand is closer to 250.
The shelter is currently housed at 217 Gordon Road, occupying the second floor of a City-owned building.
“The City has been very good to us,” Maughlin said, adding that it provides the shelter with free rent and utilities, as well as allocating money from its Community Services Fund each year for the shelter.
According to the Friends website, though, about 80 percent of the money it takes to run the shelter comes from private-sector donors to the organization. That amount includes donations collected at the Friends biennial fundraiser and auction, the most recent of which netting $25,000 for the organization. The shelter budget for FY2012 was about $80,000, a large part of that going to New Hope Housing for its staffing services.
The services the shelter offers have expanded since it first opened. It originally only housed men, in part a response to demand. In its current location, a small two-bed room off of the main 10-bed dorm room provides separate sleeping arrangements for women. The Friends have also enlisted the services of a case manager, who has worked with residents at the shelter since 2009.
“We have worked our whole time to try to see how we could best help those who are homeless get out of homelessness, and that was one of the things that we saw we needed to do on a more steady basis,” Maughlin said of the organization hiring a case manager. “Rather than just saying ‘go here, and go there to get what services you need,’ we needed to have somebody who worked regularly with the residents.”
Maughlin said the goal these past three years has been to find shelter residents permanent housing, which the group has achieved for some, but she says that sometimes those situations aren’t lasting because the circumstances that first led shelter residents to homelessness are still a problem.
“Even though we try to work with them, and give them services that will help them get out of homelessness, it’s a long process,” Maughlin said. “It works for some, and it doesn’t work the first time for others, but we haven’t stopped doing it.”
To contact the shelter, call 703-854-1400.