The approaching cold-weather season might be dismal and unpleasant for a lot of us, but it’s life-threatening for the area’s growing homeless population.
During the winter, the Bailey’s Crossroads Community Shelter, as part of the Fairfax County Hypothermia Prevention Program, works with a network of religious facilities to provide the homeless with a warm place to spend the night. The program runs from Dec. 1 through March 31.
Last winter, the shelter provided emergency overnight accommodations to about 450 homeless people at six churches and a mosque.
This year, two of those churches—Lincolnia United Methodist Church on Little River Turnpike and Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church on Lincolnia Road—won’t be allowed to participate because of a “stricter reinterpretation of the fire code that requires sprinklers in the room where people sleep,” said Beth Jones, director of the Bailey’s shelter. As a result, Jones is scrambling to find alternative locations, even if they’re much farther away.
|The lounge in the Bailey's Crossroads Community Shelter.|
Under the hypothermia program, shelter workers try to find as many homeless people as possible and bus them to participating facilities overnight. The county provides sleeping bags and mats for them and buses them back to the shelter the next morning for breakfast.
The Bailey’s shelter, located on Moncure Avenue in Bailey’s Crossroads, is operated for the county by Volunteers of America Chesapeake. It has beds for 36 men and 14 women. Even with a few extra people sleeping on the couches, the shelter is full every night, with people turned away.
Only single adults age 18 and up are admitted. During the day, clients who spent the night are bused to a program, like the Lamb Center in Fairfax, where they can get help overcoming addiction and finding employment. “They should be out looking for jobs,” said Jones. “The whole point is to get them back to a productive life.”
|The women's dorm.|
Having the clients leave during the day allows the shelter to serve more people. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, people who live in cars or in tents in parks or vacant lots can come to the shelter for a hot lunch, take a shower, and do their laundry. On Thursdays, First Christian Church in Falls Church opens its doors to the homeless for lunch and various services. A women’s group meets on Saturdays, and there’s a Bible study group on Sundays.
Most people are allowed to stay at the Bailey’s Shelter for 30 days—as long as they follow the rules: They have to obey the nightly curfew, turn in their medicine, avoid drugs and alcohol, and refrain from fighting and violence. In some cases, the shelter allows people to extend their stay if they are making progress toward finding a job or if they get a job but haven’t gotten their first paycheck yet.
Many of the people who show up at the shelter are suffering from mental illnesses and/or the effects of long-term drug or alcohol abuse, lack job skills, and are estranged from their families. Lately there’s been an increase in the elderly.
During my visit, there was a man in his late 70s, who had arrived by taxi a couple of days before. He’d been living at the Stratford Motor Lodge in Falls Church for eight months, paying $80 a night, until “I was literally out of money,” he said.
At one time, he had a house in Burke, a job in marketing for an oil company, a wife who had been a Miss Pennsylvania contestant, and children he’s since lost track of. Before the motel, he’d been living in a rented room in a house in Annandale. While he was in the hospital, being treated for heart trouble and high blood pressure, his landlord sold the house and “left me high and dry coming out of the hospital,” he recalled.
|Portable tables fill the open area during meal times.|
With nowhere else to go, he took a cab to the Sleepy Hollow Manor Nursing Home in Annandale, where he stayed for four or five days. But with the costs mounting—it’s $300 to $400 a day—he moved to the motel, which he found in the yellow pages. His goal now is to find some sort of assisted living arrangement if he can swing it with his Social Security benefits.
The staff at the Bailey’s shelter connects clients with social services and tries to find housing for them—if possible, in subsidized housing programs, assisted living facilities, group homes, or rented rooms, sometimes in more affordable locations. Apartments are generally out of reach, as the average rent for a one-bedroom unit is $1,100 a month, and the people served at the shelter usually don’t have the skills to get more than a minimum wage job.
Fairfax County’s controversial proposal for residential studio units (RSUs) could be helpful in reducing homelessness, as long as these units are near major transit lines, so people would have access to employment and stores. Community organizations are mounting a major campaign to keep this type of housing out of low-density, single-family neighborhoods. Those locations wouldn’t be of much help anyway to people without cars or other resources.
For some people, “homelessness becomes normal. They are surrounded by other homeless people and get to know all of the resources,” Jones said. “After a while, people become so used to the homeless lifestyle, they no longer challenge themselves to look for a way out.”
There have been some success stories, though. In one example cited by Jones, a woman who’s battled substance abuse for a long time seems to be making good progress. The shelter staff found an apartment for her and they are trying to reunite her with a daughter in North Carolina.
In another case, a man who had been living in the woods for a long time was placed in a farmhouse where he was supposed to help out the elderly woman who lived there. That worked out well for a few a months, and then it didn’t and he was homeless again and back at the shelter. “That might not seem like a success story, but it shows him what he can do,” Jones said. “If you can’t have some successes, there is nothing to look forward to.”
Jones said people are much more willing to help homeless children than single adults, as people tend to blame adults for their plight.
Her most critical need right now is to find additional facilities willing to participate in the hypothermia program. She also needs donations of food, toiletry items, cold medications, hats, coats, and gloves and volunteers to help with job training, resume writing, and to spruce up the shelter to make it more homey and less institutional.
“No one should live on the streets. These people are someone’s grandmother or brother or sister,” Jones said. “Everybody deserves respect and empathy.”