In 2008, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors endorsed a ten-year plan to end homelessness in the county. The Office to Prevent and End Homelessness (OPEH) was created to reach goals set forth in the plan, and a governing board was appointed to expand the reach into the non-profit community partners whose programs and services are so valuable. Prior to the creation of the OPEH, homelessness simply was managed. The Ten Year Plan focuses on preventing and ending homelessness.
How do we do that? Ending homelessness emphasizes Housing First and requires intensive work in prevention, diversion, and rapid re-housing. In the first seven years of the Plan, homelessness was reduced by 34 percent. The nationwide “point in time” count of homeless persons – those in shelters, time-limited transitional housing programs, unsheltered and living on the street — will take place later this month, and will tell us more about how the new approach is succeeding. The results in 2014 indicated that 1225 people literally were homeless, a reduction of 125 people from the previous year. In 2015, that number was reduced to 1204. Sadly, the largest number of homeless persons were not single adults, but families with children. About 33 percent of all homeless persons in Fairfax County are children under the age of 18, a statistic that hasn’t budged much in three years.
OPEH partners include the county’s Department of Family Services, Health Department, and Community Services Board. The Department of Housing and Community Development and the Department of Neighborhood and Community Services, as well as Fairfax County Public Schools, also have representation in the effort. Programs throughout the county’s four human services regions (Mason District is in Region 2) include emergency shelters, hypothermia prevention, a homeless health care program, case management for households with, and without, children, and permanent housing placement services. The following organizations were awarded contracts totaling $9.4 million to partner with the county in its efforts: Cornerstones, FACETS, New Hope Housing, Northern Virginia Family Service (NVFS), and Shelter House. NVFS operates the Bailey’s Community Shelter, and Shelter House operates the Patrick Henry Family Shelter in Mason District.
Until this week, our winter weather was fairly mild, but the hypothermia program is up and ready to go, nonetheless. Many churches partner with OPEH and the emergency shelters to provide overnight accommodations that bring people in from the frigid nights. Depending on the church, the hypothermia program may be as simple as sleeping bags on the floor in a heated room. Church kitchens often provide a hot meal at night, cooked and served by volunteers in the congregation, and send the overnight guests off the next morning with at least a bag lunch.
What often is surprising is the number of homeless persons who are working, who go to jobs every day, but whose income may support some daily activities of life, but not the high rents in this region. Their stories are sad, touching, and often move the listener to action – to work with non-profits that provide such needed programs, to advocate for affordable housing and the kinds of micro-units that can help bridge the gap to self-sufficiency, and to raise awareness of homelessness in our community. We can end homelessness, but it will continue to take a lot of effort, and compassion, by all.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.