The Falls Church Homeless Shelter is one of many smaller area shelters that will keep its doors closed this winter, causing local authorities to adjust where and how they will house the homeless population as its peak season coincides with rising Covid-19 rates throughout the nation.
Three words can summarize why the Friends of Falls Church decided to keep their hypothermia shelter closed during its usual November – March stretch for this year: not enough space.
“You have to have a certain amount of physical space for distancing in shelters, and we simply did not have that space,” Bob Fletcher, the chair of the shelter’s board, told the News-Press. “The decision was made that we would not be able to operate the shelter.”
Its home at 217 Gordon Road in the City of Falls Church can house up to 10 men and two women, so the total number of people is less of a problem than how much separation they can get. The men sleep in one room, with six in individual beds and four on two bunk beds. The women stay in a small room with two beds.
Fletcher said that attempts to re-fit the shelter in a way that accounts for proper distancing were tried, but ultimately unsuccessful. In his words, “The idea of only operating with two or three guests a night was not feasible.”
So the roughly 30-40 unique guests the shelter gets each year will have to turn elsewhere. According to Thomas Barnett, the deputy director at Fairfax County’s Office to Prevent and End Homelessness, the county has been working all year long to plan for its usual winter surge.
Barnett said they scouted over 50 locations throughout Fairfax County before landing on a few publicly owned buildings that are either under-utilized or not being used at all due to the pandemic. An emergency order by Fairfax’s Board of Supervisors signed off on eight locations that can be rotated in place of the smaller hypothermia shelters that won’t operate this winter.
Substitute shelters that are local will be at the Lincolnia Senior Center in the Alexandria area, per Barnett, as well as the Container Store that’s along Leesburg Pike in the Tysons area. Barnett didn’t commit to that location being opened by its target date of Dec. 1, but is confident it will be following necessary building and fire code reviews.
One of the reasons the county has been working so hard to find new shelters is a typically reliable source — houses of worship — not only lack space, but are also run by people who are more susceptible to Covid-19.
“Faith community volunteers happen to be older, so they provide a particular vulnerability to the virus and can get seriously ill,” Barnett said.
Hoteling is the other strategy Fairfax officials are using to help homeless shelters manage their resident populations.
Thanks to funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the county can purchase a group of rooms in a hotel and keep overflow residents in there if need be. It’s also an overlap with a program that the county started to help people in multi-family housing self-isolate if they tested positive for Covid-19.
Barnett said the hotels will also serve that function for homeless individuals, as well as for those who are demonstrating virus symptoms and are awaiting test results. Lastly, the rooms will be used by those who are at risk of getting seriously sick from coronavirus because of their age or their condition — which Barnett said is increasingly common since the average age of the county’s homeless population is rising.
Despite large parts of the economy being shut down and many people finding themselves out of work, Barnett said that he doesn’t see the demand for shelters increasing this year. He estimated that Fairfax County’s total homeless population will likely hover around the 1,200 mark as it did last year, though cautioned that could change depending on how evictions are handled once the moratorium ends after Christmas.
Even with their shelter closed, the Friends of Falls Church aren’t sitting on their hands this winter. Fletcher said the board has a number of proposals they’re currently considering, such as an emergency assistance fund that homeless individuals or organizations that serve the homeless could tap into. They’re also trying to work more closely with the Falls Church Community Service Council for help with food assistance.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure we can stay involved in the community this year and provide support to various organizations,” Fletcher said. “[Those] that directly support homeless people and that support other parts of the community that help people stay housed.”