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Awards Name Helpers to Arlington's Homeless

A-SPAN dinner draws volunteers, donors, former homeless.

Larry Brown talks openly about his life – about mistakes that left him homeless for 12 years, steps he took to get back on track, and the people at the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network who helped him.

“I didn’t have a rough life, but I took a step out somewhere along the line,” he said. “And I didn’t know how to get back, until I got to A-SPAN.”

Brown joined about 200 local residents at the second annual Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network awards ceremony on Friday, April 5. Tickets to the dinner and a silent auction helped raise money for A-SPAN, while awards presented to Ann and David Broder, the ServiceCorps of the National Journal Group, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, and Marte Birnbaum helped draw attention to the successes of the organization and to the people and groups who made it all possible.

“We’re just really pleased with the amount of community support we’re getting,” said Lora Rinker, Executive Director of A-SPAN. “Things have been going very well.”

Indeed, last fiscal year 48 homeless people in Arlington got off the streets with A-SPAN’s help. Hundreds more received food, counseling and a warm place to sleep through A-SPAN’s Emergency Winter Shelter, the Homeless Bagged Meal Program and Opportunity Place, A-SPAN’s homeless outreach program.

Serving the homeless is like building a ladder to success, said Robert Egger, founder of the DC Central Kitchen and guest speaker at the ceremony. “The most important rungs… are the first rungs.”

Brown was at the bottom of the ladder two years ago when a drinking buddy told him about A-SPAN. He remembers distinctly the day he began to turn his life around: March 19, 2001. “I was homeless, I’m an alcoholic and a drug addict,” he said. Alcohol and drugs had become a huge part of his life – so much that when he asked for a pair of glasses at the shelter, A-SPAN volunteers arranged for him to spend some time in detox.

The next few months proved to be a turning point in Brown’s life. With the help of A-SPAN staff and volunteers, he got counseling and the assistance he needed to beat his addictions, get off the streets and secure meaningful employment. “They told me what to do and I did it, and I’m here,” he said.

SUCH SUCCESS STORIES are possible in part because of year-round support from A-SPAN volunteers and staff. Last year the organization began a hall of fame, to recognize those who contribute over an extended period of time. This year’s hall of fame presentations went to two individuals and two groups.

David Broder, the syndicated columnist, and his wife Ann have supported A-SPAN for years. In the last three years the Broders increased their involvement, giving major donations and endowing an Opportunity Fund that A-SPAN officials say will help secure the organization’s future.

The National Journal Group ServiceCorps was recognized for fundraising efforts and outreach programs to employees. Those programs helped secure enough volunteers for the Homeless Bagged Meal Program to serve food to over 40 people every night of the year in two Arlington locations.

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington has been involved with A-SPAN since its creation, recruiting volunteers, cooking meals, donating money and even providing space for A-SPAN’s office from 1995 to 1998.

In addition to those hall of fame presentations, a special award was given to Marte Birnbaum, Director of Opportunity Place. Birnbaum created the Opportunity Place program and has trained and managed staff since its creation in 1998.

Birnbaum has seen the program grow by leaps and bounds over the last five years. “It was an exciting opportunity to get involved in something new,” she said. This year Opportunity Place has already served more than double the number of people they served in that first year.

It’s rewarding to know the program is reaching out to so many people, Birnbaum said, but it’s also disconcerting. “A lot of the growth is based on the need,” she said. A-SPAN officials say Arlington’s streets are home to more than 700 people each year.

Despite A-SPAN’s success, the sheer number of homeless people means more work ahead, said Jane Burr, the county’s coordinator of homeless services for the last 10 years. “I think what that signals is that we need permanent housing, and of course affordable housing,” she said at the awards ceremony.

FOR BROWN, it was important to be at Friday’s ceremony to thank those who helped him, and to show support for the A-SPAN clients who still struggle with the problems he has now overcome.

In addition to supporting A-SPAN, Brown stays active in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, helping get others on track to sobriety. “I give back what was given to me—a new way of life,” he said. “All you have to have is an open mind and a willingness.”

Now Brown works for UPS and says he feels better than he has in years. “I know I’m 50, but I don’t feel 50,” he said. Sobriety and a second chance at life keeps him so energetic, his coworkers often wonder how he stays so active, he said. “I say, ‘I don’t know, but I like it.’”

He’s also been happily married for two years, and says that A-SPAN’s goal of helping people “get off the streets and live a life of dignity” truly worked for him. “I like being called ‘Mr. Brown’ now,” he said.