Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpThe homeless among us are often invisible, the well-dressed speaker noted, and many of them prefer it that way.

But Arlington’s community of activists against homelessness was plenty visible April 24, when 300 turned out at a Ballston conference center for the first-ever “Coming Home Breakfast” fundraiser put on by the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network.

“We have a microcosm of Arlington in this partnership of the private and nonprofit sectors,” developer and philanthropist John Shooshan told the crowd that included Rep. Jim Moran, Sen. Barbara Favola, Del. Patrick Hope and county board members John Vihstadt and Walter Tejada. “Arlington is a great place to do business and play, so people think we can’t have homeless,” added Shooshan, who chairs A-SPAN’s 10-year plan to end homelessness. But affluent Arlington is also “a place where people make things happen.”

My own experience with A-SPAN consists of pitching in on a monthly sandwich-bagging project organized by my day-job employer, so I was pleased to learn the bigger picture.

Launched 23 years ago to serve meals before expanding to a winter shelter, A-SPAN in 2013 serviced more than 1,000 homeless Arlingtonians, sheltering more than 400. Its 100 homes initiative has placed 87 in their own housing, including 12 chronically homeless veterans thanks to a partnership with the Veterans Affairs Department.

Next year, after a county planning process not without controversy, A-SPAN will open its year-round 50-bed shelter on Courthouse Square. In that tightly secured building shared with other county functions, staff will offer case management, job training, substance abuse and mental health counseling, plus five beds for patients discharged from Virginia Hospital Center.

“We estimate we have saved the hospital $1 million a year in emergency room visits,” said Executive Director Kathleen Sibert. “We are very creative in finding resources” at a time when foundations and corporations have been cutting back. Some of the care is provided by volunteer physician Mike Fernandez, who donates a night a week to A-SPAN clients at St. George’s Episcopal Church.

“Homelessness is something that happens to you, but it doesn’t define who you are,” said Sibert, who showed video of the shelter’s rooms and the apartment of a newly housed client. “This past winter was brutal, so you wonder how the homeless did it when we found it a struggle even to walk the dog.”

The homeless don’t have “the docking station,” as Shooshan called it, “the place we all have where we can go at night to get re-centered.”

A-SPAN board president Tim Ward, a nine-year volunteer, recalled a homeless Arlington man named Clark who was found dead two years ago. A-SPAN staff followed up with his family and learned that 40 years earlier, he had been abused as a teenager.

The final speaker before the call for donations was a grateful client. Mallyveen Teah, who attended prep school in Washington and college in North Carolina, was solidly middle class until the 1970s when his West African mother died of cancer and a coup in his native country brought repression.

“That started a down cycle of drinking, and I lost my focus,” he said. His state of mind “of not belonging anywhere” worsened when he had “no key to turn” when he got off work and couldn’t invite friends over. Teah thanked A-SPAN as he showed off his shiny new keys.