F.C. Homeless Shelter Faces Uncertain Future

REDEVELOPMENT OF THE current site where the Friends of the Falls Church Homeless Shelter sits is set to be redeveloped in two years. (Photo: Patricia Leslie/News-Press)
REDEVELOPMENT OF THE current site where the Friends of the Falls Church Homeless Shelter sits is set to be redeveloped in two years. (Photo: Patricia Leslie/News-Press)

Falls Church’s homeless center may be homeless itself in the not-too-distant future.

That’s because the area where the Friends of Falls Church Homeless Shelter is located at 217 Gordon Road is set for redevelopment. Hannah Jordan, chair of the board operating the facility which opened on Nov. 15, says the redevelopment may start in two years.

“We are concerned that we might lose our space and what would we do for the homeless in this area [then]?” Jordan asked. A long-range planning committee is grappling with that question.

With a little extra effort and money, Jordan says the shelter could handle twice the number of residents it has now (10 men and two women) in the building it shares with the Fairfax Water Authority.

There is a waiting list for the shelter spaces which are filled first come, first served. Residents must sign up daily to reserve a bed.

About 90 – 95 percent of the funds needed to operate the shelter come from the private sector, and the Friends’ group applies to the city every year for a grant to keep it going, Jordan said.
Jordan said that the Friends shelter is “very grateful” to the city because, among other things, it charges no rent to the Friends for its use of part of the building the city owns and maintains.

The shelter opened in 1996, started by a grassroots effort by churches in Falls Church. Now several volunteers beyond Falls Church’s religious community provide meals, programs, supplies and hours of effort to support the shelter.

“We have hundreds of volunteers,” Jordan said, who are aided by a professional staff from New Hope Housing, Inc.

The Falls Church shelter is considered a “hypothermia” center, designed for sleeping only during the winter, but Falls Church has much more: services, and storage for personal belongings and a bed for everyone so no one has to sleep on the floor.

All meals are donated and individual families also bring meals for those staying at the shelter. The residents have breakfast every morning and volunteers make bag lunches for them.
The men and women are divided by room and bathroom and there are more beds for men than women because more men are homeless than women, according to Jordan.

The average length of stay is about 25 nights, although some stay for the season, said Suzanne Williamson, the chair of volunteers for the Friends’ group.

All the residents have chores that include mopping and sweeping the floors, cleaning bathrooms, taking out trash and cleaning up after dinner.

The residents start arriving around 6 p.m. every night and have a 7 p.m. curfew. They are usually very tired and sometimes anxious, said Priscilla Woyak, the case manager from New House Housing, Inc. who works with the guests several times a week. She helps them with resumes, job skills, learning about available services and other services they need. Medical and dental care are available to residents as well.

Lights are turned off at 10 p.m. Residents are free to get up in the mornings whenever they like, as long as it’s before 8 a.m. when the shelter closes for the day.
Each resident receives a weekly unlimited bus pass and a $25 gift card every month to buy necessities like socks, Woyak said.

Many of them walk a lot every day, and their socks wear out and get wet, she said.

“We want to make them as comfortable as possible,” said Luis Franco, a professional staff member and the shelter coordinator from New House.

Three weeks ago the center began a special program, Out of Poverty, to educate the residents about the reasons they are at the shelter and to give them tools for living in today’s society. When they complete the class at the end of January, there will be a graduation, Franco said.

The shelter has no cap on lengths of stay. Depending upon circumstances, residents are encouraged to “move on” to a more comprehensive site, if needed. One resident is moving with his family to a two-bedroom apartment.

Franco works five nights a week, assisted by a volunteer, welcoming residents and helping them. At midnight Franco and the volunteer are relieved by two paid staff members.
Franco said Fall Church’s smaller faculty helps him “interact with the residents” and develop relationships” rather than just monitoring them like at larger facilities. “Here, it’s more personal,” he said.

Many residents find the Falls Church center more inviting and pleasing than a larger shelter like the county’s shelter at Bailey’s Crossroads, Woyak said.

Jordan said she devotes a lot of time to the homeless shelter “because it’s a way for me to make a difference, I know this sounds trite, but in such an affluent area, people do not realize…lives which are so different from ours.”

Williamson chimed in, “We want to give back to the community.”

Jordan added that there’s a lot to learn from the residents who stay at the shelter. “[The residents’] stories are so compelling because they are such interesting people and we have so much to learn from them. They have faced incredible hurdles, and we want to help them better their lives.”

The Friends of the Falls Church Homeless Shelter will remain open through March 31, 2015.