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Family Shelter Plan Runs into a Hitch

Although specifics of the agreement hadn't yet been nailed down, Fairfax County was expecting an organization called HomeAid to help it get a 20,000-square-foot family shelter built in western Fairfax County.

However — although it'll still help in some form — the group recently decided not to tackle such a large project. And while plans for the shelter will continue, the change definitely threw a wrench into things.

"The relative amount of the contribution wasn't clear, so we've never been able to get a gauge of the value HomeAid would bring to the table," said Carey Needham, chief of the Building Design branch of the county's Department of Public Works. "But the expectation was that it would help offset the cost so [the shelter] would be more affordable, overall, for the county."

The shelter is proposed for construction near the intersection of Route 29 and Stringfellow Road, just west of Meadows Farms Nursery. Three other parts of the county have homeless shelters, but there are none here.

County Executive Anthony Griffin says there's a "critical need" to establish such a facility in western Fairfax County, and Peyton Whitley, co-chair of the county's Homeless Oversight Committee, notes that the county's homeless population, last January, included about 850 school-age children in more than 350 families.

That's why providing another shelter for families is high on the county's priorities. And with a waiting list of 60-80 families, at all times, the county wants a new shelter open by January 2004. It would house up to 20 families and mainly serve single parents with children — mainly in elementary school or younger. Two transitional housing units, each 3,000 square feet and serving three families, are also planned.

HomeAid coordinates projects such as this and solicits in-kind contributions for things such as labor and materials, thus reducing construction costs. And it had approached the county about doing something of this nature in connection with the shelter.

But over the last couple months, as the county hammered out more of the scope of the project, said Needham, "HomeAid thought it was too big for them to take on. But they're interested in [helping with] the two transitional buildings, and we'll be thankful for whatever contribution they can make."

Meanwhile, he said, "We're regrouping and looking at it as more of a conventional type of project. We're looking at what would it cost, is there money available and where would it come from — if we have to do it on our own. We've had to step back a bit. At first, we were thinking that a large portion — even a majority — of the construction costs and, possibly, design costs, might be picked up by HomeAid. But it was always loosely defined."

Needham said the county is open to anything along the lines of a public/private partnership: "We haven't closed the door on any alternative to buy down the costs." But realistically, he added, the shelter isn't a for-profit venture, so "there's not a revenue-generating piece" in which a private developer might be interested.

He plans to provide Griffin with building-cost estimates, this month, and then the county executive and the Board of Supervisors will determine how best to fund the new shelter. Said Needham: "We're trying to keep this thing moving forward as best we can."

Stressing the county's strong desire to "get this facility built and up-and-running," as soon as possible, he said it's already hired a civil engineering firm. This company will create a conceptual site plan and work on an access issue with VDOT and Equity Homes, which is building a residential community nearby.

Kathy Froyd, with the county's Department of Family Services, says the county will look for another contractor to build the shelter. As for HomeAid's change in plans, she said, "It's a 30- to 60-day setback, but not a dealbreaker, by any means. And we're glad to still have them as a partner."

Needham says there's enough money to do the design and get the permits. And the county hopes to deliver the conceptual site plan to the Planning Commission by fall. "Working out a strategy for funding the shortfall could be done over the next several months," he said. "We don't have to have the actual, tangible money for nine months to a year."