|An illustration of the expansion project.|
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors agreed July 29 to allow Bethany House of Northern Virginia to expand a shelter for women victims of domestic abuse in the Barcroft Hills neighborhood.
The expansion plan has generated controversy in recent weeks, as some neighbors who oppose it put up signs on their front lawns identifying the address of the shelter, while Bethany House has tried to keep its location confidential to protect the residents.
During the Board of Supervisors hearing, Mason Supervisor Penny Gross urged her colleagues to support the expansion. She said there hadn’t been any complaints about the shelter until the signs went up, noting “it was stunning to discover there were pent-up emotions about this application.”
Gross noted that the house across the street has seven bedrooms and is twice as big. She said additional conditions agreed to by Bethany House – including a contact person who can be reached 24/7 in case of problems – will go a long way toward addressing neighbors’ concerns.
Among the dozen or so people who spoke at the hearing, only three were against the expansion, although more opponents came to earlier meetings and wrote letters urging the county to deny the expansion – or at least impose stronger regulations.
Bethany Sutherland Jones, who lives near the shelter, asked the supervisors to delay approval until more conditions can be implemented and Bethany House can demonstrate “a change in behavior.”
She cited the need to maintain property values and a safe neighborhood, as well as several ongoing problems, such as trash accumulation, trespassing, failure to respond when people knock on the door, and failure to share information.
“Sixteen people in one house is an apartment building, not a home in a neighborhood,” said Karen McDaniel, who lives next to the shelter. She’s had numerous problems with the shelter residents – including people parking too close to her driveway, bumming cigarettes from a neighbor, and theft of a cell phone by a resident’s child – but didn’t call the police because she didn’t want to get them in trouble. “I feel like I’m being raped by Bethany House,” she said.
Another neighbor, Delbert Jones, said he doesn’t oppose the existing shelter, but doesn’t want it to be expanded “until Bethany House can repair its relationship with the neighbors.” He said the organization deliberately avoided community engagement and misrepresented its plans for expanding the shelter.
Lynn Strobel, the attorney representing Bethany House, conceded that the organization could have done a better job of reaching out to the community.
Rev. Sarah Scherschligt of Peace Lutheran Church on Lincolnia Road who bought a home a few blocks from the shelter a couple of years ago, spoke in favor of the expansion. “I don’t think it negatively affects our investment. We think it makes the neighborhood a better place to live,”she said.
“We all know someone who has experienced domestic violence,” Scherschligt said. “We are grateful such a place exists in our community.”
“This county is in dire need of temporary shelters for people who suffer from abuse,” said Bruce Langwiser, chair of the domestic violence prevention committee at Faith Communities in Action. He spoke about meeting a woman who couldn’t leave her abusive husband because she didn’t have anywhere to go. This project is about “taking broken, shattered lives and rebuilding them,” he said.
Ken Fisher, speaking as a citizen rather than the applicant, said Bethany House has been successful in providing services to clients – such as counseling and financial education – so the vast majority are able to start a new life and resist going back to their abusers. “I hope the folks who oppose this see our clients need a touch of kindness and the strength that comes from being part of a community,” he said.
Ian Haskell, the only person who spoke in favor of the project at the hearing who actually lives within a block or two of the shelter, said he’s passed by it hundreds of times and didn’t know it was there. Supporting the expansion is the “right thing to do,” he said. “I want my neighborhood to be about the protection of the vulnerable.”
Several others who spoke in support of the expansion included former victims of domestic abuse and people who operate other shelter programs.
Amanda Tenorio, for example, a former Bethany House client who’d been “a prisoner in my own home,” said it’s important “to break down the judgments and stereotypes” about shelter residents.
Heather O’Malley of Doorways for Women and Families, said, “We all live in neighborhoods with abusers. Abuse is happening all the time; we just don’t see it.”