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Real People, Real Problems

Tracking and helping the city's homeless population.

Editor's note: Some names in this report were left out to respect the privacy of the homeless in Alexandria.

While many Alexandrians worry about how they are going to pay their taxes, there are some who worry about where they're going to sleep.

Sarah [not her real name] is 38 years old. She grew up in a middle-class home in Northern Virginia, graduated from a public high school in Manassas and then earned a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from Mary Baldwin College. She gets up each morning, goes to the Alexandria Community Shelter to shower and dress for work and takes a bus or two to her job.

Sarah works six days a week, about 35 hours in all, earning $10 an hour. In the winter, home for Sarah is the city’s overflow unit at the shelter. In the summer, Sarah finds a place to sleep wherever she can, somewhere outdoors in Alexandria.

She has been homeless for most of the last 13 years. “When I got out of college, I worked in a preschool for about a year and it just wasn’t the right career for me,” Sarah said. “I wanted to go back to school and become a health professional, but just didn’t have the money for that.”

Sarah had a small apartment and was able to pay the bills until she lost her job. “I missed a couple of rent payments, was evicted and lived in my car for a while,” she said.

She began her odyssey through the area’s homeless shelters in the early 1990s after her car stopped running and was towed away. “There have been very few times in my life that I haven’t had at least one job but I have never earned enough money to pay a security deposit and first month’s rent on an apartment and pay all of my monthly expenses,” she said.

On a cold January night in 2003, there were 14,276 homeless people in the region, according to this year’s Metropolitan Council of Governments report on the homeless population.

The District of Columbia is the local jurisdiction with the largest number of homeless people. The jurisdiction with the smallest number of homeless people is Loudoun County with 133. With 515 homeless people, Alexandria has the third smallest homeless population of any jurisdiction in the region, tied with Prince William County.

Over the past three years, the number of homeless people in Alexandria has fluctuated from 543 in 2001, to 604 in 2002, to 515 this year.

While there are services available for Sarah and other members of the city’s chronically homeless population, there are reasons why they use the services sparingly.

“As service providers, we are very aware of most of the chronically homeless people in Alexandria,” said Fran Becker, the executive director of the Carpenter’s Homeless Shelter, which is celebrating its 15th birthday this fall. “We know these people and they are very aware of the services that are available to them.

"When one of the outreach workers becomes aware of a new person who is living on the streets, we make sure that that person is made aware of the services. Those who continue to live on the streets are making a choice to do so. There are beds available but there are responsibilities, too, and some people are just not willing to accept those responsibilities.”

One of those responsibilities, at least at Carpenter’s Shelter, is to save 70 percent of your income to put toward housing when they leave the shelter.

“We don’t have any time limit on how long people can stay,” Becker said. “We do require that people save 70 percent of their earnings while they are here. All of that money is returned to them when they leave but we want to ensure that they leave to go into either transitional or permanent housing and that they don’t return to us within six months after they leave.”

THIS REQUIREMENT has been a problem for Sarah. “I tithe to my church,” she said. “I want to have a home of my own but my religion is important, too. I don’t believe that anyone has the right to tell me that tithing isn’t right.”

Sarah earns approximately $1,400 per month. She tithes 10 percent of that, spends another $50 per month on transportation and pays another approximately 20 percent in taxes and other federal and state withholding. That leaves Sarah about $900 a month that she could use to pay for an apartment, utilities, food, clothing and laundry.

“Under the best of circumstances, she could be placed in a transitional housing program and save sufficient money to survive on her own after a couple of years,” said Nelson Smith, the city’s homeless services coordinator for the Department of Human Services. “Realistically, she just doesn’t make enough money right now to make it on her own, not considering the cost of housing in the city.”

Would Sarah consider a transitional housing program?

“Yes, of course, I would consider it,” she said. “But there are so many requirements and there are certain things that I just can’t agree to.”

While not a problem for Sarah, one of the requirements is to remain drug free. About 20 percent of the region’s homeless population are chronic substance abusers. This is not a problem for Sarah, who has no history of substance abuse and no criminal record.

About 10 percent of the region’s homeless population are diagnosed as seriously mentally ill. Another 10 percent are dually diagnosed with mental health issues and substance abuse. About nine percent are victims of domestic violence and just over five percent are veterans of the armed services.

Sarah has had little contact with the mental health system. “I don’t believe in mental health services,” she said. “That goes against my religious beliefs.”

DIAGNOSED AND undiagnosed mental health problems are significant barriers to many chronically homeless people receiving services.

“Those people who are functioning in society by maintaining employment and who are not violent and do not present a danger to themselves or others but who could benefit from some type of psychotropic or anti-psychotic medication are very hard to reach and then to serve,” said Dr. Michael Gilmore, the executive director of the city’s department of mental health mental retardation and substance abuse services. Gilmore said that about 70 percent or more of chronically homeless people suffer from some type of mental illness.

“One of the keys to treatment is a willingness to admit that you have a problem,” Gilmore said. “In many cases, if you have a job and are caring for yourself, you don’t see yourself as having a problem, you see the system as having the problem because it just isn’t providing the kind of services that you need.”

Those kinds of services might include a Safe Haven program. Gilmore and members of the Community Services Board proposed just such a program when the city looked at uses for the Alexandria Residential Care Home facility that closed this spring.

“There was significant community opposition to this but we feel that a Safe Haven program is very necessary,” Becker said. “The Community Services Board staff does an excellent job of meeting people where they are and providing services to them. We need a Safe Haven program and will continue to support the CSB efforts to get one funded.”

THE SAFE HAVEN program would provide a supportive living environment for up to eight chronically homeless individuals who, for a variety of reasons, do not fit into traditional shelter and transitional living programmatic schemes. Although the city chose to use the ARCH facility for a mentoring foster care facility for four teenagers who are in foster care, Mayor William D. Euille and others expressed their support for the Safe Haven program in June when Council voted.

“We had to make a choice among three worthy programs,” Euille said. “While we voted to use this particular facility for a new foster care program, we are very committed to affordable home ownership and the Safe Haven program, the other two options that we considered.”

That program, or something like it, is at least a year away. In the meantime, Sarah lives outdoors from April to October and then spends the winter on a cot or mattress in a room that is used for people like her during the winter.

“We need to look at nontraditional services and we certainly don’t have anything really that approaches affordable housing for people like Sarah,” Smith said. “There is still work to be done.”

THE COUNCIL OF Governments agrees. In addition to recommending the development of a homeless management information system region wide, the report had two additional recommendations. “COG should call on member jurisdictions to collaborate with continuum of care providers and advocates to produce a practical plan with achievable objectives, transparent timelines, and assignment of responsibilities that will end chronic homelessness by 2012,” the report said.

Proposals include providing rental “single residency occupancy units” for people with extremely low income and supportive housing for adults with disabilities, adults.