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Drowning in the Rising Tide

Residents and staff of the Embry Rucker Community Shelter are united in their belief that better days lie ahead.

After losing her job as a daycare worker and after being evicted from her Reston apartment last April, Tammy and her nine-year-old son found themselves both hopeless and homeless.

They lived in a budget motel for three months until their money ran out. And last week, with no other options, the mother and son moved into the Embry Rucker Community Shelter.

"When I walked in here for the first time, I had tears in my eyes," said Tammy, whose last name is being withheld at her request. "I still cry every night before I go to sleep."

Tammy and her son are two of the most recent arrivals to Reston's homeless shelter, an emergency home for an increasing number of Northern Virginia's victims of hardship amidst surrounding affluence.

As luxury apartments and condominiums are built in the area — many just up the street from the shelter itself — more and more people are becoming homeless in the area and are increasingly turning to the homeless shelter for help.

"The rising tide is lifting some boats, but others are drowning," said Marte Birnbaum, director of the Rucker shelter, which is located next to the Reston Regional Library on Bowman Towne Drive.

The Rucker shelter takes in both homeless individuals and families, offering them temporary housing and access to counselors who help undo the root problems that led the homeless person to the shelter.

"We tell everyone who comes here, 'Don't get discouraged. Don't give up. A miracle is right around the corner,'" Birnbaum said.

FOUR YEARS AGO, the shelter frequently had empty beds and fewer people seeking hot meals than expected. Now, the Rucker shelter rarely has an open room for families or an empty bunk for an individual, Birnbaum said.

"We're full every night," she said. "Our rooms are booked. It's a sad situation. Too often they don't have an alternative."

On an average night, the Rucker shelter has 60 men, women and children living in its dormitories. Individuals usually stay for around a month, while families generally stay for an average of 90 days. Individuals are served on a first-come, first-served basis, and families are placed in the shelter by Fairfax County's Department of Family Services.

According to preliminary data for the last year, from July 2003 through last month, the Rucker shelter housed at least 266 people, Birnbaum said.

Homelessness for both individuals and families is typically caused by a mixture unemployment, lack of health insurance and the lack of affordable housing. Drug and alcohol abuse and mental health problems are also common occurrences among Rucker shelter residents.

In Tammy's case, she and her son were living from paycheck to paycheck. In addition to her daycare work, she also worked various jobs for Fairfax County Public Schools, alternately as a teaching assistant and as a food service worker. When she became unemployed, food and rent for her Stonegate Village apartment ate up what little savings she had.

Now, Tammy just wants to get out of the shelter and give her son a happier, more stable environment.

"I'm going to get out of here," she said, as her son played basketball behind the shelter. "I'm going to get back on my feet. Get a place. Just the two of us."

THE RUCKER shelter opened its doors in 1987, after homelessness increased dramatically in the Washington, D.C. region during the 1980s. It was named after Embry Rucker, a longtime advocate for a homeless shelter in Reston and the first minister of St. Anne's Episcopal Church.

Reston Interfaith, a non-profit service organization, runs and staffs the shelter. Sixty percent of its funding comes from Fairfax County and the rest is drawn from fundraising events like the Embry Rucker Golf Tournament, which raised $96,000 earlier this month.

County drug, alcohol and mental health counselors regularly meet with residents at the shelter. Alcoholics Anonymous and other rehabilitation groups also hold frequent meetings for addicted residents.

The shelter is one of four in Fairfax County that provides emergency housing. After residents leave, counselors try to help move them into either transitional housing or at least get them on track to have a steady income.

Within the shelter, a job resource center allows residents to use the internet to find employment listings and local businesses advertise jobs on a billboard in the shelter's common area.

As people move through the shelter, they will often utilize Reston Interfaith's other programs, which include a food bank, transitional housing and tutoring centers for children.

"The shelter is one very important stop along the way for people who have needs," said Kerrie Wilson, executive director of Reston Interfaith.

In the last two weeks, three families have moved out of the shelter into Reston Interfaith's transitional housing, Wilson said.

"That's a real high point for us," she said.

STEVE, also a resident of the Rucker shelter, said he is trying to take advantage of as many of the offered programs as possible. Twice a week, he meets with a counselor from Fairfax County's Alcohol and Drug Services. Everyday he attends AA meetings and works with his caseworker to find a new job.

Alcohol, he said, has ruined his life more times than he wants to admit. A former chemist and Indiana University graduate, Steve drinks until he loses everything — his home, his car, his job, his friends — and then checks himself into rehab. A few months later, after kicking his drinking habit, he convinces himself he is cured, takes a drink, and starts his cycle over again.

"This disease tells me that everything is OK. That I don't need to go to the meetings," said Steve, who asked that his last name be withheld. "Then, the next thing I know, it's off to the races. I'm drinking a fifth or two-fifths of liquor a day."

Last month, after a particularly long and disastrous drinking binge left him homeless and penniless, Steve found himself at Rucker shelter.

By giving him a place to stay, Steve has been able to avoid worrying about housing or food for a few weeks while he fights his alcoholism and tries to find a job.

"This place is really a life-saver," he said Monday night, sitting in the shelter's common area before heading to a group meeting for alcoholics. "It's literally saved my life."

BOTH TAMMY and Steve said they feel fortunate to have a roof over their heads, though they are anxious to get out and start rebuilding their lives.

"No matter where you've come from, we've all ended up here at the shelter," Steve said. "All of us are just trying to get back on our feet."

No one is ever happy about coming to the Rucker shelter, Wilson said, but for the last 17 years, it has helped people make changes in their lives for the better.

"We've got a population out there screaming for relief," she said. "And that's what we try to do everyday."