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No Room at the Shelter

As homeless are turned away, Good Shepherd Alliance creates outreach service.

As The Good Shepherd Alliance (GSA), Inc. shelters turn away more and more homeless residents, some of the staff members are heading to the streets.

"We’re just being forward thinking about what homelessness will look like in five years," said John Brothers, executive director of GSA.

In October, GSA initiated a street outreach program to locate homeless residents living in Loudoun and to connect them with resources and services. To conduct the program, GSA hired Erin Ronlov of Leesburg as director of social services, creating her position in September.

In that role, Ronlov identifies homeless residents through several methods. She responds to call-ins of homeless locations. She looks for where the homeless congregate. And she travels around the county with staff members from the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services as they try to get help for those with mental illnesses.

When the staff cannot help, Ronlov provides the homeless with a hygiene kit, dry food, blankets and information, offering the same services the GSA shelters provide except housing if space is not available.

"That way you can connect people with services, even if they live in a car or on the street," Ronlov said.

FINDING THE HOMELESS can prove to be difficult and is similar to being a private investigator, according to both Ronlov and Brothers. The homeless change locations as the weather changes, doubling up with others on a more frequent basis in the winter months. Less than 1 percent of the homeless want to be in that situation, Brothers said. "I’m most worried about the number of people on the fence … who are one paycheck away from being homeless," he said. "If one thing goes wrong, they might need our services."

Five years ago, GSA did not turn away any homeless residents seeking shelter and today the non-profit organization turns away double the number it can serve, a maximum of 27 residents at the men’s and the women and children’s shelters. In 2002, GSA turned away 83 men and in 2003 through Nov. 30, 180 men. As for children of homeless parents, GSA turned away families with 151 children and registered 100 children in 2002, the first time in the shelters' 20 years of operation that many children resided in the shelter.

"The number of homeless people turned away from our shelters did not warrant any record keeping until 1999," said Mark Gunderman, vice-chairman of GSA. "However since the 9-11 tragedy, the number of people calling to register in our shelters has increased and thus the number of people being turned away has skyrocketed."

The actual number of homeless living in the county has not been identified, Gunderman said.

"We’re starting these programs because we have to … to alleviate the biggest social issue for the county," Brothers said. "This issue is very close to the average citizen of Loudoun County whether they know it or not. These are our neighbors we’re talking about, our community members. … Because you don’t see homelessness in front of you, that’s why it hasn’t created a stir."

BROTHERS chose Ronlov to lead the program after she started volunteering at GSA in August. "She walked through the door and wanted to volunteer," he said. "As we started asking questions, we knew we had a goldmine. … She’s done a lot, so we’re lucky."

Ronlov, who moved to Loudoun County in February, worked for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in Denver, Colo. from 1999 to 2002 after working for a non-profit detoxification center, also in Denver, for two years. She served as community services and outreach coordinator of the Coalition’s street outreach program and as substance abuse case manager. She identified and assessed the homeless in order to provide them with referrals for services available at the coalition or through other agencies.

"Erin’s been doing this for so long, she intrinsically understands what they’re going through," Brothers said.

In her work at the Coalition, Ronlov learned how to use a motivational interviewing style with client intakes, the initial interviewing process, to allow the homeless to make their own decisions as she gave them suggestions. At GSA, she follows an asset-based philosophy, identifying what the homeless enjoy doing, along with their skills and talents. She works with them to develop a self-sufficiency plan, instead of developing it for them without their input.

"I talk about their gifts. Everyone has gifts," Ronlov said. "It helps with their self-esteem."

"We get them thinking ... what can we do to use their assets," Brothers said.

THE PLAN, a six-step program aimed at helping end homelessness, includes:

* Providing crisis intervention and orientation of the emergency shelter.

* Helping the residents with personal development, goal setting and furthering their education.

* Assisting them with job search, training and placement.

* Providing support system reinforcement with case management services and a savings plan.

* Securing affordable housing.

* Obtaining self-sufficiency with a stable environment and case management for the next six months, which also allows GSA to determine the effectiveness of its programming.

"Erin’s unbelievably gifted at tearing at the layers that prevent people from becoming self-sufficient," Brothers said, referring to the substance abuse, medical, emotional and other issues the homeless face.

A typical intake includes 20 to 30 questions, asking the homeless residents about their needs, implying that the agency is the one who will solve their problems through a needs-based approach. GSA flips the process and asks the homeless, referred to as neighbors and guests, how GSA can help them solve their problems. "You’ll never be able to eradicate it if people are always needing things," Brothers said. "People who are poor or homeless are smart people. They’re surviving in difficult situations."

IN JANUARY, GSA plans to open a warming center in a house in Leesburg, providing up to seven homeless residents with an overnight place to sleep during the coldest months. The center will include a year-round drop-in service with showers, food, clothing and information about human services available in the community, along with GSA’s administrative offices that for now are housed in the back of the Thrift Store in Countryside.

"We’re hoping it will be an integral part of the human service, social services delivery system," Brothers said, adding that GSA has a close relationship with several county agencies through sharing information and providing referrals back and forth. "In growth like this, you have to partner up."

Even so, "We’re trying hard to not be here," Brother said, adding that GSA aims to remove homelessness from the county, so that GSA has no need to keep the shelters open.