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Activist Calls for Equitable Treatment for Homeless

Aug. 28, 2002

<bt>The family and men's emergency homeless shelters are increasingly turning more and more residents away, while the Loudoun County Animal Shelter's turnaway rate is on the decline.

This fiscal year, the county allotted $207,000 in local and state funds for the homeless shelters of the $12 million available for homelessness prevention. Alternatively, the county provided $1.77 million for the animal shelter.

These facts have the volunteers for the Good Shepherd Alliance, Inc. (GSA) concerned.

"We need program equity in the way we manage homeless people as well as homeless animals," said Mark Gunderman, vice-chairman of the GSA board of directors. "Loudoun County is an empowered and enlightened community. Let us also be recognized as a loving community. It's easy to love the animals. It's not so easy to love homeless people."

While the state does not mandate the county provide housing for its homeless residents, it does require the county operate a dog pound for lost and stray dogs, issue dog licenses, and follow animal care, control, property and protection laws. The laws exist with the aim of preventing animal attacks on people and other animals, putting an end to nuisance animal behavior and maintaining public health, which can be affected by rabid and disease-carrying animals.

THE HUMANE SOCIETY of the United States built the animal shelter as a model facility in 1967. The county took over the facility in 1974, renovating and expanding it last year at a cost of $1.64 million, funded by more than $100,000 in donations and the rest through a 1998 bond referendum.

Gunderman wants the same thing for the homeless shelters, which the non-profit agency operates through a contract with the county. The three-year contract expired on June 30 with the work still up for bid this year. Under the contract, GSA operates three family homeless shelters in Leesburg in houses provided by the county, in addition to a separate private men's shelter in Arcola. The house for the men's shelter, which is on loan by Brambleton Partnership Group, will be torn down in 2005 to accommodate the developer's 6,000-unit housing development.

"We need a modern single men's facility. Eventually, we will need a separate facility for single women. If you think the dogs and cats should be separated, don't you think the men and women should be separated?" Gunderman said, adding that the homeless population also is increasing. "We're outgrowing our existing homeless facilities."

The emergency shelters took in 190 Loudoun residents in 1998, compared to 327 residents in 2001 when the shelter had to turn away 117 residents. The shelters took in 190 residents this year through July with 156 turnaways. Comparatively, the animal shelter euthanized 121 animals in fiscal year 2001 and 53 animals in 2002 to accommodate a lack of space. The rate decreased after the county expanded the animal shelter to a total of 45 dog kennel runs.

This month, the emergency shelters are nearly at their maximum capacity with 16 adults and 20 children staying at the family shelters and another 10 men at the men's shelter. The family shelters are designed to house 35 residents and the men's shelter, 12 residents. Residents are allowed to stay at the shelters for a maximum of 89 days as they look for housing, work if they are able and save part of their earnings in an escrow account. In the meantime, GSA provides the residents with emergency housing, food, clothing, transportation, child care and job referral assistance, a program available since 1983.

HOMELESSNESS in the county is a hidden problem, since the homeless are not seen on the streets, said Joyce Trickett, board chairperson. "It's behind closed doors really," she said. "I find it appalling to think, who's taking care of those who can't take care of themselves? ... I want to put the children first and the animals second. I think the county is in reverse instead of forward."

The county budgeted less than half of what GSA needs to operate the homeless shelters during fiscal year 2003, which is estimated at $500,000. This year, the county added another $150,000 in local funding to the $60,000 the shelters receive annually in state and federal funding, leaving GSA to raise the rest of the funds from thrift store sales, donations, grants and business partnerships.

Alternatively, the county is covering all but $113,000 that is needed to operate the animal shelter. The rest of the funding comes from dog license sales and shelter fees, bringing the total for fiscal year 2003 to $1.9 million. Last year, the shelter sold 9,500 dog licenses, generating $54,000 in addition to $50,000 in pick-up, adoption and spade and neuter fees. The dog licenses cost $5, a break-even expense that does not generate any excess revenue.

"We're very reasonably funded," said Robert Montgomery, director of the Department of Animal Care and Control. "We have enough people to provide good services. We have a good adoption rate. The animals get excellent care, and the public gets excellent service. The challenge over the next few months is to continue these things, but to do it for less cost."

"The population increase has spawned the need for animal-related services. It's a lot of animals and it's very high citizen demand," said Candice deButts, deputy county administrator for human services and the animal shelter.

THE COUNTY provided $6.89 million in fiscal year 2003 to fund several housing programs aimed at reducing and preventing homelessness in the county, in addition to $6.2 million in homeless prevention funds provided through the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse.

"It turns out we spend a lot of money on the homeless," deButts said.

Since 1991, the county has operated the Loudoun Transitional Program through a federal grant to provide homeless mothers and their children with a place to live for up to two years. The program operates on a $300,000 annual budget with a $130,000 local match.

The county spends another $40,000 of the $150,000 used to operate the Homeless Intervention Program (HIP). The program, which the county started in 1995, aims to prevent homelessness by providing rental assistance, mortgage foreclosure loans and security deposits.

Another $6 million in federal funds assists 690 families a year through the Housing Choice Voucher Rental Assistance program, designed to help homeless residents achieve permanent housing through rent subsidies. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) intends to help low-income and elderly disabled residents through the program.

Operation Match is funded with $25,000 in grants and $25,000 in local funds to match residents in need of a place to live with residents who need help covering their house payments. The program is a pilot project through the Department of Housing and Community Development.

"The truth is, the county does a whole lot to keep people from becoming homeless. With every single one of those persons, we provide these services to make sure they don't become homeless," deButts said.

"Human beings in general should not go without basic needs. That doesn't mean the government has to pay for all of that, but government certainly has a big role," said Supervisor. Chuck Harris (D-Broad Run). "In Loudoun County, minimal health care and housing is so expensive, it's very difficult for those who are at the bottom. ... The county tries to do its fair share and should do more in my mind. That requires taxes. It requires community involvement."