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Is The Lamb Center Sure To Go?

Homeless shelter looking at a move to Draper Drive.

The Lamb Center sits in a squat concrete building on Old Lee Highway, near Fairfax Circle. The center offers food, clothing, hot showers, laundry and help finding jobs to people who are homeless and poor in Northern Virginia. "We see over 80 people a day that are homeless," said Patti O’Neill, assistant director of the Lamb Center.

The number of clients the center has served has grown steadily over the past few years, O’Neill said, and now the center is outgrowing its 3,451-square-foot building. The center is now looking for alternative locations. "We’re considering a move," O’Neill said. "It’s very preliminary."

One location that the center is examining is 3141 Draper Drive, just a few hundred feet outside the limits of the City of Fairfax. The building on Draper is roughly 19,000 square feet and is currently vacant. The space is broken up into at least two areas. A large empty garage-like area is to the rear, and the front area, which looked like it had offices, is unfinished, with some spots lacking drywall.

The center is operated and receives its primary funding from a group of churches in the region. Truro Episcopal Church in the City of Fairfax has paid $6,000 for a preliminary architectural evaluation of the new building to determine if it can meet the needs of the center.

The Fairfax City Council, during its March 22 meeting, appropriated $6,000 to reimburse Truro for the survey. "For some time, we’ve been in some discussions to find a win-win," said Fairfax Mayor Robert Lederer in an interview.

Although the center is operated by churches, has a small Christian chapel inside and offers (but does not require) multiple bible study classes daily, Lederer does not believe that giving public funding to them violates the constitutional separation of church and state. "I’d view it as more of a community-based service," Lederer said. "I think [prayer]’s just a secondary component."

Lederer said that the center’s lease expires later this year, and the city has been looking for ways to help them find a new location. The center, Lederer said, was looking for a location which was served by a bus route, and is not too far from the current location. The proposed new location, he said, was not consciously chosen to get the center outside of the city limits. "It’s a location that’s affordable," he said.

Rather, Lederer said, there were few locations which met the criteria the center wanted. Additionally, it would take the center off of the more visible business area on Old Lee Highway which he said is not a good spot for the shelter. "There’s an ideal location for every business," he said.

The proposed location, O’Neill and Lederer stressed, is very preliminary, and much will depend on the results of this initial survey. The new area is zoned for industrial use, and it is not clear if the center would need a Special Exception of Special Use Permit of some kind in order to operate in that zone. The proposed location is in the Providence District in Fairfax County, but Supervisor Linda Smyth (D) said she had not yet had an opportunity to study the issue and could not comment.

The center closes at 4 p.m. daily and does not offer overnight shelter. O’Neill said that they would not seek to add any overnight component in the new location. "We are here to meet the needs of the homeless, as far as their daily needs," O’Neill said.

THERE ARE, however, residential areas just across the street on Draper Drive, and other residences just a block away, pointed out Bob Freeman. Freeman lives in the area and is a member of the Kingsbridge Task Force, a group which discusses issues in the surrounding area.

Freeman pointed out that the Yorkville cooperative is directly across from the warehouse. Children from Mosby Woods Elementary might walk near the center, Freeman said, and there is a dance studio nearby that will bring scantily-clad girls to a spot a few doors down.

While Freeman thinks that the center is filling a valuable need and does important work, he does not think that Draper Drive is the right spot for it. "There are other ways to do it, other than putting them in an area that is heavily residential," Freeman said.

The center does have some clients from outside of the Fairfax area, and can attract others, Freeman said.

"There are a lot of homeless around [the current location]," said Lynn Coulter, spokesperson for the City of Fairfax Police. Coulter said that people who go to the Lamb Center are rarely more than a nuisance. Coulter estimated that they would respond to calls involving homeless people near the Lamb Center one or two times per week, but stressed that was a high estimate.

She said the most frequent calls they get are complaints about public drunkenness, urination and sleeping on private property. "Most of these guys are low-keyed. They don’t want to get into trouble," Coulter said.

The police, Coulter said, have very few problems, and typically just ask the men to move along, which they willingly do. "As long as they’re treated like human beings, they seem to be OK," Coulter said.

Coulter stressed that the center itself is not causing the problem. The City has a no-trespassing ordinance which police sometimes use to keep people who go to the center from loitering at other nearby locations.

Even so, Freeman said, he does not believe that the center is an appropriate use for the center. He suggested moving it to Merrifield, or another more industrial area, as opposed to the residential neighborhood.

So opposed to the center, Freeman pointed out that according to the zone (I-5) a crematorium would be allowed by right in the location. "With the potential for the Lamb Center to move into this area, the crematorium looks better every day," Freeman said.