On Thanksgiving, the first thing most people think of is food; turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes. Few think of those who are going with out it, the homeless. But in Arlington, a group of dedicated volunteers is working over the holidays and year-round to supply sustenance to those people struggling to get by without shelter, warmth or enough to eat.
The last U.S. Census counted 850 homeless people living in Arlington.
“It’s probably much more than that but we just don’t know the exact figure,” said Linda Coats, director of the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network (A-SPAN).
For 15 years, A-SPAN has organized clothing and food drives, shelters and other initiatives to help Arlington’s homeless. For Thanksgiving, A-SPAN is hosting a special dinner at its Emergency Winter Shelter on 15th Street in the Courthouse area, served and prepared by volunteers.
This year, the Garcia family has stepped in with turkey, side dishes, china plates, tablecloths and all the amenities needed to bring the holiday meal to life.
“The important thing for people to know is that we do this kind of thing all year long, not just Thanksgiving,” said Coats. “The holidays are when most people want to get involved but this is something that we need to think about more than a few days each year.”
THE EMERGENCY SHELTER, a dormitory that sleeps 46 adult men and women each winter’s night, will remain open until the end of March as a refuge from the cold for many who come in on a regular basis. Yet the shelter is just one way people can get involved with A-SPAN’s work.
Volunteers hand out bagged dinner on the streets each night in Rosslyn and in Virginia Square. Anne VorderBruegge and Sandy Dane said they chose to volunteer with their children, to show them the plight homeless people face.
“Homelessness is such a struggle, in the area around Washington,” said Anne VorderBruegge as she passed brown paper bags out to the line of people surrounding her car during a Rosslyn food run. “I volunteered with my son because I want him to know that there are people who are less fortunate than he is, people who need help.”
Dane and VorderBruegge pass out the food while their children, eight-year-olds Carl and Nate, give away spoons and napkins and chat with the people in line. Contact with the children brings a smile to many of them.
“They’re fun to talk to,” Nate said. “Sometimes I’ll tell them stuff I do for fun and they will remember the things they did when they were my age.”
A-SPAN ALSO RUNS WHAT is know as “Opportunity Place,” a small office in Shirlington where the homeless can be connected with social services aimed at getting them off the street, services like help finding a job or counseling for substance abuse problems.
“We try to help the whole person,” said Coats. “We’re all about individual achievement, helping people at their own pace.”
Back at the shelter, volunteers from the Walker Chapel prepared a hot chicken casserole for the nightly residents. Many church groups participate in A-SPAN as a way of helping the community but the organization also has a roster of about 350 individual volunteers who give their time whenever they can.
“There’s a need here,” said chapel volunteer Lucy Cunningham. “It’s something more people should get involved in for the sake of helping others.”
To aid in A-SPAN’s efforts over Thanksgiving, the Nature Conservancy in Ballston has organized a food drive and individuals have are also organizing their own drives for winter clothing, particularly winter coats.
“As the cold begins to set in, clothing is going to be one of our number one needs,” said Jessica Wood, A-SPAN’s volunteer coordinator. “But we always need more volunteers too.”