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Walking To Help Homeless

Annual Help the Homeless walkathon brings 30,000 walkers to help agencies that serve the homeless.

According to the Fannie Mae Web site, more than 15,000 people in the greater Washington, D.C. area are homeless, a third of whom are children.

To help fund the shelters and organizations providing assistance, food and care for homeless people in the area, the 18th annual Help the Homeless walkathon took place on Saturday, Nov. 19, at the National Mall. All proceeds from the walk will be given to a variety of nonprofit organizations specializing in transitional housing and emergency assistance for families in need.

Springfield-based Housing and Community Services of Northern Virginia is one such organization, which has benefited from the Help the Homeless walk for the past several years.

"We've done some mini-walks with local elementary schools to raise money before the big walk," said Kim Monti, executive director. "Before we go to the schools to walk with the students, we'll give a short presentation about the work that we do and talk about what it means to be homeless."

Most children associate the term "homeless" with the images of people living in the street, Monti said. "We tell them that it's not what they see on TV; homeless people can look like anyone else. It can happen to anyone."

The average age of a homeless person is 9 years old, Monti said.

Housing and Community Services of Northern Virginia provides housing placement assistance for at-risk and homeless families in addition to financial counseling, short-term financial assistance for rent and utility bills and eviction prevention services.

"We received $19,000 from the Help the Homeless walk last year," Monti said. The money they receive this year will go toward general operations and programs fees to "help fill gaps," she said.

A team of 12 volunteers from Housing and Community Services of Northern Virginia had planned to participate in the walk.

THE WASHINGTON AREA Gleaning Network, based in Lorton, brings in volunteers to area farms to pick up fresh fruits and vegetables after the commercial harvest is over, said executive director Thomas Chandler.

"We get millions of pounds of food each year, which goes to homeless shelters and food banks," Chandler said. "We engage homeless people in the process, bringing them out to help us pick up the food, which gives them job skills and helps their self-esteem."

Fifty farms throughout the Mid-Atlantic region work with the Gleaning Network, Chandler said, and up to 8,000 volunteers in a given year help to bring in the harvest.

"This is a year-round organization. Once the harvest is done here, we bring in produce from other areas of the country that can be used," he said. The crops are stored at a warehouse in Maryland.

For the past 10 years, the Gleaning Network has benefited from the Help the Homeless walk, Chandler said. "The funds raised help us engage homeless people in work programs, help transport the food to shelters and food banks. We're a grassroots organization but we have to have a small staff, refrigerated trucks, vans and facilities to keep operating."

Last year, the Gleaning Network received $22,000 from the Help the Homeless walk, which helped to supplement its $300,000 budget.

In addition to providing healthy foods to homeless shelters and food banks, the Gleaning Network has a series of educational programs and opportunities for area schools.

"We provide an educational component that combines agriculture and gardening with information about poverty, the benefits of gleaning, health and nutrition and fitness," Chandler said.

THE LORTON Community Action Center (LCAC) has benefited from the Help the Homeless walk for the past four years, said executive director Rev. Stephen Rorke.

"We provide emergency assistance to families in the Lorton area, such as food, financial help, clothing, furniture and after-school programs," Rorke said. Many of the families helped by the LCAC risk becoming homeless or are being helped back on their feet by other services LCAC offers, he said.

"This is a good fund-raiser for us," Rorke said, adding that LCAC received $30,000 from the walk last year. "The money we receive is used to help fund our emergency assistance efforts to prevent people from becoming homeless. It's also used to provide case management services and other counseling to help put people in danger of becoming homeless on a budget until they can become self-sufficient."

The LCAC is "the only nonprofit in Lorton that provides these services," Rorke said. "More and more people are moving into the area, which means that more and more people are coming to us for help all the time. We feel we meet a great need in the community and the walk gives us substantial amount of funding that allows us to do our work."

AN ESTIMATED 30,000 walkers participated in the Help the Homeless walk, said Crystal Prater, manager of public relations for Fannie Mae. The official totals for both numbers and amount of funding raised will not be finalized for a few weeks, as each walker's application has to be hand inspected, she said.

"Last year, we were able to raise about $6.5 million through our Help the Homeless walk," said Donna Purchase, manager of the Homeless Initiative with Fannie Mae and coordinator of the walk.

All 178 organizations that applied to receive funds from the walk were accepted, she said. Both the number of organizations benefiting from the walk and the total amount of money raised has stayed "about the same" for the past few years.

"The way I like to look at it, people seem to be more stressed out and are more strapped for money in recent years, but we're still getting the same number of walkers and raising the same amount of money," Purchase said. "It's a good feeling that people are not pulling back their support or their money."