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WFCM Director Discusses Plight of Local Poor

Fairfax County is a great place to live — especially if you've got lots of money. But if you're poor, or just squeaking by from one payday to the next, it can be one of the toughest.

Dorothy Fonow is the executive director of Western Fairfax Christian Ministries (WFCM), which provides the local area's needy with food, clothing and transportation to and from doctor's appointments. It also gives financial aid — including money for rent, electricity and medical bills — to those in crisis situations.

"The average income in Chantilly is $88,000, and in Centreville it's $109,000," said Fonow. "Fairfax County is one of the most expensive counties in the country — and therein lies the problem."

She was speaking, Sunday evening, to a group of local residents gathered for a discussion about the plight of the poor in western Fairfax County. It was held at Coffee Time on Route 29 in Centreville and hosted by Wellspring United Church of Christ.

Fonow said WFCM serves 300 people a month with 1,100 to 1,200 bags of food. These families generally consist of one to eight people and have incomes of $14,000 to $47,000 a year. "So there's quite a gap [between them and those earning the "average" incomes here]," she said.

According to 2003 statistics provided by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in this area is $1,218. A full-time worker would have to earn $23.42 an hour to afford this rent. Among those here who do not are police and sheriff's patrol officers, plus child, family and school social workers.

Fair-market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in this area is $1,039. A full-time employee would have to earn $19.98 an hour to afford this rent. Among those here who do not are: middle-school teachers (except for special and vocational ed), paralegals and legal assistants, dental assistants, construction laborers and file clerks.

Also on this list are truck drivers — light and delivery, preschool teachers (except special ed), nursing aides, orderlies and attendants, security guards, retail salespersons, teachers' assistants, janitors and cleaners (except maids and housekeeping cleaners), cashiers, fast-food cooks, waiters, waitresses and hotel and motel desk clerks.

"A lot of people who come to us for help share a home and utilities and engage in 'hot-bedding,'" said Fonow. "This is where people share a bed in shifts. One gets up, the bed's still warm, and another one gets in. We find this happening in one- or two-bedroom apartments."

"I don't know how some people continue to live here, but they do," she continued. "Most of the people we help are only earning minimum wage. More than 3,000 are below the poverty line.

Fonow explained that one of WFCM's missions is to keep people from losing their homes. If they do, they often end up in their cars — if they have them — or on the streets. Some live with friends, some camp in Bull Run Regional Park and some farm out their children to family and friends.

If they lose their home, FACETS (Fairfax Area Christian Emergency & Transitional Services) will put them in particular motels that house the homeless. And if they're lucky enough to make it through the huge waiting lists to get into a homeless shelter, they'll have to abide by the shelter's rules.

"Children are uprooted from their schools, and they can't bring friends to a shelter or have a birthday party there," said Fonow. "These people have lost everything, and it's devastating." A new homeless shelter is planned for construction in western Fairfax County, but it will hold just 60 people — 20 families — and, said Fonow, "We could fill it now."

She said most people envision the homeless as people pushing shopping carts in Washington, D.C. But according to a Fairfax County Point of Time Study of the homeless, done on one day last January, the average age of a homeless person here is 9.

Fonow said about 19 percent are mentally ill and some 33 percent are chronic substance abusers. But for the most part, she said, "We're talking about families."

People also think the homeless are lazy, she said. But in fact, said Fonow, the study revealed that 40 percent of homeless adults in this county are employed, and 65 percent are employed and have families. In addition, 63 percent of the homeless are female. Of the 325 families in the study, she said, 412 were adults and 698 were children.

"So it's a serious situation," she said. "But it's a basic right — they should have a roof over their heads. The up side of living in an affluent area is that I have lots of volunteers and people making in-kind contributions [to WFCM]. But we have a very big problem."

The major obstacles here, said Fonow are the lack of affordable housing, transportation and health care. "If people don't have a car, they have to make three bus changes to get to Reston, and it takes two hours," she said.

WFCM helps people pay their rent and utilities and even repair their vehicles. But increasingly, said Fonow, "We keep using our discretionary money for people's prescription costs — and they're not even able to get their full prescriptions filled because what we give them can't cover it. And pretty much, by the end of the month, we've run out of money for prescription help."

That's why affordable health care is crucial, she said. "If you have no insurance or have claimed too much on it, a serious illness can destroy [your finances]," said Fonow. "But we, the little guys, can't [effect a change]. This can only be done at a higher level."

There's a fine line between getting by and falling into a financial calamity, she said. "It's very, very hard to keep afloat here," said Fonow. "And you only have to get sick or have a car or home repair that you can't pay, so WFCM helps a lot of people with their mortgage payments. Once people go through their 401Ks and their savings, then they come to us."

They're also "shell-shocked," she said, because "this wasn't supposed to happen to them. There are people who lose jobs and are out of work for a lot longer than they expected — people who live in Virginia Run and have trouble making their $2,000 mortgage payment. So it affects both ends of the spectrum."

Fonow said about half the people coming to WFCM's food pantry are Hispanic "and we have three volunteers there who speak Spanish — it's absolutely essential." But only about 12 percent of Hispanics come to WFCM for financial assistance.

"We ask a lot of questions and we need proofs of I.D., something proving they live where they say they do, and a lease — which we then check with county records," said Fonow. "So if they're undocumented, sharing a home and hot-bedding, they don't come to us for money."

Because WFCM gets federal government HUD money from Fairfax County, it has to make sure it's going to the right person. "We pay rent money only to a landlord — the owner of the property," said Fonow.

The problem with this area, she said, is that "there are no services out here. We're it for people [needing help] in Centreville and Chantilly. We tend to work with families that are struggling — and many of them are single parents — but a good many of them have both parents at home. Most of the people we serve are not on welfare and are not in Section 8 housing. We help about 500 families a year; they come to us by referrals from the county and by word of mouth."

"Given that there are huge holes in the safety net here, which could be filled by a small group like Wellspring?" asked its pastor, the Rev. Jeremy McLeod. Fonow said budget counseling and life skills such as parenting help are especially needed, plus people who speak Spanish or have computer skills. For more information, call WFCM at 703-988-9656.