Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


Some 450 Arlingtonians not likely soon to become homeless traipsed through the gleaming new year-round Homeless Services Center during its open house Oct. 1.

Guests taking the tour from staff in black A-SPAN shirts ranged from household-names to volunteers who perform their good deeds out of the limelight. Warmed by a spread of food, the shelter seemed crowded with hope that some of the controversy attached to the long-in-the-making facility will ease now that the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network can demonstrate what it’s up to.

“There’s nothing like this in the whole United States,” I was told by Virginia state Del. Rip Sullivan.

“I plan to bring my Alexandria friends to see it,” exclaimed Congressman Don Beyer.

A-SPAN President and CEO Kathy Sibert, who spent the evening surrounded by cameras, confirmed reports that many neighbors in condos alongside the Courthouse building at 2020 N. 14th St. have rethought their opposition.

Retired county manager Barbara Donnellan said things “were off to a good start” because some from the neighborhood met with the Human Services Department.

Critics will be watching to see whether the ambitious project becomes a magnet for too many of the region’s homeless and breeds crime.

One close-up view will belong to Judge George Varoutsos of Arlington’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, whose chambers are directly across from the old Thomas building (once owned by a longtime Arlington family of attorneys), in which the homeless facility occupies two lower floors.

The shelter also abuts the Police Department, which will keep an eye on things backed by closed-circuit cameras and an evening security patrol. Clients are not permitted to loiter.

Unlike A-SPAN’s 20-year-old winter emergency shelter across Courthouse Square, the new center offers comprehensive services. Beds for 36 men and 14 women (the two dorms are separated by some 100 feet). An additional 30 beds can be added to accommodate overflow on cold nights.

The bunk rooms for two include lockers. A silvery institutional kitchen offers hot healthy meals. Five case manager’s offices with desks and computers allow staff to counsel clients on benefits retrieval and substance abuse or mental health. Laptops line a classroom from which clients can job-hunt. Five rooms containing “respite beds” offer space for clients who’re in pain or recovering from surgery—which saves the taxpayers money through shortened stays at Virginia Hospital Center.

The main gain is “providing most services clients need in one place,” says A-SPAN volunteer board chair Jim Whittaker. Up until now, homeless clients had to travel to multiple offices. “We are the post office for 600 clients” who can use the A-SPAN mailboxes to receive disability checks.

“The shelter is for Arlington residents, but we don’t turn people away, Whittaker says. “Some have identification, some don’t, but they have 96 hours to prove residency,” perhaps through a utility bill. If they stay in Arlington for 90 days, they’re an Arlingtonian, he says. But the staff’s goal “is to turn people around,” to find them an apartment, a job.

The January count, he says, showed 239 homeless on Arlington’s streets, some of who don’t want to come in to sleep or take a shower. “We’re not necessarily a magnet.”

The day after the open house, signs at the old emergency shelter steered clients to the new location. On Oct. 2, the new A-SPAN center went live.


What is the shortest street in Arlington? By my observation, it’s a toss-up. North Kansas Street, at Wilson Blvd. near Mario’s Pizza, barely registers a blip when you drive through. Then there’s North Lancaster Street, hidden in residential-land at North 37th off Williamsburg Blvd. Pace them off, you’ll find both are under 200 feet.