The only reason the little house on North Seventh Street stands out in the neighborhood is the orange shutters on its front. Otherwise, passers-by might never notice it amid the hundreds of quaint homes in North Arlington. Yet in times of crisis for many families and homeless women in the county, this simple house, the Doorways for Women temporary shelter, can mean a new life.
"It’s a home," said Linda Dunphy, the shelter’s director. "It doesn’t feel like a shelter. It's in a residential neighborhood. There's no sign out front. They can just focus on rebuilding their lives."
On Tuesday, the Arlington County Board votes on whether or not to grant the shelter — once called The Arlington Temporary Community Shelter — the permit to build a new 21-bed building on the existing house. According to the plans, the structure will be very different than the home there now but the benefits that come with the renovation will help many in desperation, Dunphy said.
"Often there’s a history of domestic violence, child abuse or neglect," said Dunphy. "People don’t become homeless just because they lose their jobs."
The shelter opened its doors in 1978, under the direction of an interfaith organization. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, it is the only one of its kind in Arlington. For residents at the Seventh Street shelter — homeless women and families — time is spent putting their lives back together by finding work, getting counseling or just searching for a new place to live.
"That’s the thing about homeless families," said Dunphy. "You don’t often see them on the street. They are usually doubled up with family or staying in a really bad situation because they have no place else to go."
The shelter has two components. Its safe-house for battered women is at a secret location, Dunphy said. Prospective residents have to call ahead of time to get permission to stay and get the address. The shelter on Seventh Street — the one being renovated — is for homeless women and families only. Men can stay there if they are part of a family in need but not on their own. Dunphy said the new building will allow the shelter to add space enough for two more families. It includes a new play area for children and kitchen. Funding for the $2 million project is coming from the Freddie Mac Foundation and the Northern Virginia Homebuilders Association, but Dunphy said the shelter still has to raise $600,000 in donations to pay for it.
The program relies on volunteers, some given special training to handle residents in flight from violent homes. Dunphy said that abuse is just as common in Arlington as it is anyplace else.
"It’s not a declining problem, that’s certain," she said. "It’s made worse because there’s not enough awareness of it, particularly among the immigrant community."
Among those volunteers is Sara Girovasi-Marron, who has served at the homeless shelter for 18 months.
"If you’re here long enough, you get to know the residents who have come and you get to see people working to gradually put their lives together," she said.
Girovasi-Marron said she signed up to help families in need at the shelter because she had noticed the lack of places like Doorways for Women in Northern Virginia.
"It has 16 beds for all of Arlington," she said. "The rebuild is going to make it much better."
According to statistics from Doorways for Women, one-quarter of Virginia’s high school students report having experienced abuse at the hands of a partner. An estimated half of the state’s children are also abused.