Sterling resident Vick Dunbar was sitting in his living room the day before Thanksgiving when he heard a knock at the door. It was his landlord ready to turn off the power and evict him, his wife Casey and their two teenaged children.
Vick Dunbar is quick to say his family did not become homeless overnight. “Bad choices,” loss of employment, depression and a lack of motivation led him and his family there, along with “not attempting to be spiritually grounded,” he said. “This is your lowest point. Nobody figures this is happening to you.”
Dunbar talked as he placed laundry into a washing machine in one of the two homeless shelters operated by Volunteers of America Chesapeake (VOAC), Inc. where he and his children have been staying since Dec. 2. “It’s all about choice. The right thing is always the hardest thing to do. When you waver, once you get off the beaten path and you stay off long enough, these things can happen to you.”
“We were sinking together and rising again,” Casey Dunbar said as she leaned against the kitchen counter and looked over at her husband of 16 years.
The Dunbars started out sleeping in a car until they “fell into God’s hands,” Dunbar said. They called the Department of Social Services that, in turn, put them in contact with the Loudoun County Emergency Shelters. “I’m sick and tired of being tired, making the wrong choices. My brother said, ‘You’re not a stupid man. This is God’s will.’ I believe that.”
ONCE ACCEPTED into the shelter, the Dunbars and other residents are allowed to stay for 30 days up to 89 days with extensions as long as they follow the house rules and fulfill the shelter’s other requirements. During their stay, VOAC teaches the residents life skills, provides them with referrals, guides them in the job search and requires they save some of their earnings, along with doing house chores and making their beds daily. The residents may be able to use what they save toward acquiring transitional housing, the next step in the county’s “continuum of care,” as Laura MacLaurin, VOAC director, said.
All the while, VOAC provides the residents with housing, food, clothes and the use of household goods. During their stay, the residents have to demonstrate that they are ready to make changes in their lives, or they have to leave, MacLaurin said.
“When people are ready to make changes, we’re here to help. We’ll give them guidance,” MacLaurin said. “I turn people away from the shelter. There are people out there who need the chance. You can’t help someone who’s not ready to be helped.”
Each resident works with a case manager to develop a case plan with set goals and a list of steps for achieving employment and housing. “When you work through case management, it’s a process. It takes time to analyze what the problems are,” MacLaurin said. “There’s no quick fix.”
Dunbar agreed. “When they removed the pressure to provide the basics, I became overzealous,” he said. “I thought I could pocket the money and in 90 days be fine. It doesn’t work like that.”
Instead, “Their programs are structured to provide a hand up for the homeless so they can re-stabilize,” said Cindy Mester, director of county Housing Services. “They foster self-reliance and responsibility but within that warm supportive family environment.”
VOAC operates two shelters, each with 12 beds and located in two of three single-family homes along Woods Road. “It’s really not an ideal setup to house a homeless shelter,” MacLaurin said, adding that two buildings are harder to staff and to monitor than one combined facility.
VOAC uses the first building for administrative purposes, since it has a low producing well that is insufficient for shelter operations. To open that house, the county needs to upgrade the well and septic system and establish another $75,000 to $100,000 in funding to provide 24-7 staffing, MacLaurin said. In the meantime, the house is used for life skills training, helping residents achieve self-sufficiency and holding children’s activities, meetings and conferences.
VOAC, which has a staff of 12 employees, is contracted to operate the shelters from Feb. 1, 2004 to June 30, 2005. The 17-month contract will allow the county to establish a fiscal year contract by fiscal year 2006.
“A lot of people think those shelters closed down when the contract shifted,” Mester said, adding, “They are full again, not surprising given the needs of the community and the cold weather.”
The county obtained special exception to start using the houses in 1996. Good Shepherd Alliance, Inc., a non-profit organization based in Leesburg, operated the houses as shelters through grants and donation funds until fiscal year 2003. The Board of Supervisors approved local tax funding to help support the shelters’ operations, a move that resulted in a change to county requirements. The county requested the next vendor provide 24-7 coverage of the shelters to address the changing needs of the homeless population, along with additional staff and staff trained in case management. “The first time we did the procurement process, GSA withdrew their proposal. VOA could come in on short order,” Mester said.
VOAC, which has operated the county’s transitional housing program for the past 12 years, took over operation of the shelters in February 2003 until Jan. 31, 2004 under the same contract, continuing operations with the current contract. The county renovated the two shelters, finishing work on one of the houses in February 2003 and the second in May 2003.
“We had a problem getting going here. A lot of people still think GSA runs the shelters or that they’re sitting empty,” MacLaurin said.
“VOA met more of the county requirements,” Mester said. “We’ve been very pleased with the quality of service delivery.”
Dunbar can attest to that. “Anybody out there who’s reached bottom, an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness, there are programs out there that work. This is a working program,” he said. “We’re going to be OK. They helped us redirect and refocus.”