Human Services Exec Has Mixed Tidings

Human Services Exec Has Mixed Tidings

Although financial outlook for Fairfax is good, social problems are outstripping funding.

Verdia Haywood, deputy county executive for Human Services, spoke about Fairfax County’s Fiscal Year 2007 budget to the Route 1 Task Force for Human Services at its meeting on March 29. The task force hosts representatives from a diverse array of churches, agencies, and non-profit organizations along the Route 1 corridor. Haywood described a county budget of $3.32 billion, which has increased almost $270 million, about nine percent, since last year. The budget calls for $352 million to be spent on Health and Welfare Programs, a $26 million dollar increase over 2006. He ticked off a list of human services initiatives rife with new programs and expansions of old ones.

But the mood in the meeting did not match the upbeat statistics. There was a sense that social problems in the county, such as homelessness, health care, mental health, and education, were far outstripping the funding arrayed against them.

“Overall our fiscal climate is very healthy,” Haywood said. “Something is happening in the real estate arena.” The math is simple. Real estate revenue accounts for 60 percent of the county’s budget. The average value of a home in Fairfax has more than doubled in the last five years.

But he warned energy prices and health care costs continue to rise. Federal budget deficits will also affect the county, particularly for human services. Haywood described deep cuts in Medicaid, the elimination of community services block grants, and anti-drug programs in schools. “A lot of [the financial strain] is attributable to the war effort,” he explained. “We have not kept pace at all” with health-related infrastructure and staffing requirements, particularly with bioterrorism issues.

Haywood went on to highlight many of the human services related initiatives in the budget, including after school programs, assisted living facilities, medical care and shelter for the homeless, and one penny from the each dollar of real estate assessment (or $22 million) to be dedicated to affordable housing.

But when talk went beyond the dollars and pennies of the budget to the condition of human services for the people that need, his descriptions quickly became more pessimistic. He reported a significant rise in hypothermia cases, specifically in the central part of county. There were 25-30 last year, but 70-90 this year.

“We can’t do hypothermia again the way we did it this year,” he said, calling for changes in sheltering program. The county is “going into the next phase [making] a much more significant prevention effort, keeping people in their housing” and more effort in getting people into permanent housing.

He called for the construction of a single room occupancy shelter. “The churches did a wonderful job” with the Hypothermia Project, an effort to give the homeless of Mount Vernon a warm place to stay on frigid nights led by a coalition of churches, non-profit organizations, and the county. “The commitment there was just overwhelming... we’ve all been very touched by that.” But he said that rotating church to church puts a significant stress on parishioners to provide care each night.

Later in the meeting, Pam Michell, Executive Director of New Hope Housing addressed Haywood’s call for homeless shelters. “It is not cheap to house people in shelter. I’m worried if we go on the shelter kick in central county we will lose the momentum”… that’s the band-aid.”

ALTHOUGH more permanent shelters may not be the solution for the county, Michell still praised the Hypothermia project “The fact that it was so non-bureaucratic was fabulous.”

Anne Andrews, the convenor of the Task Force, added that many of its clients were working people who normally did not want to go to shelters. She cited the many churches that participated. Parishioners “met these people and learned these people were not different and they were people they could relate too… we created a whole new support group.”

Laura Derby, of Rising Hope Ministries, said the communal energy of the Project is “something we need to harness. The connection we’ve had between the people in the churches and the people they’ve been hospitable too, the opportunity to build those relationships. There are people who are saying ‘What can I do to help this individual to get their van running again so they can get back to the job they used to have. What can I do to get this person into detox?’ amazing results.”

Haywood added, “I would want to keep those congregations involved in it” no matter how the shelter situation is addressed in the future.

Several members of the Task Force questioned why the county wasn’t increasing human services workers to match population growth in the way that it does for police and firemen. Anne Andrews said “the county ought to be growing their community services along with the population the same way they grow” their emergency services. She said this would ease pressure on those emergency services.

Louise Cleveland, of the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens’ Associations, discussed “Emergencies that are developing in mental health system… its getting worse all the time… You don’t need more support from the public right now to do something about this” because the public knows it needs to be done.

But Haywood did not allay their concerns. “I just can’t see it happening,” he said. I don’t see an agreed-to formula on the basis of population happening.

The meeting ended with a call for affordable housing. Earlier, Haywood acknowledged that the county was putting less money into affordable housing than had been called for by many of the organizations represented at the task force. “Yes, there’s only one penny 21.9 million,” he said. But that money has taken pressure off other housing funds. “We are getting into what I consider really stretch goals.” Haywood said that if he had been told year ago that they would be “sitting around a table on April 7 seriously considering strategies to end homelessness in Fairfax county” he would not have believed it.

Gary Lupton, the director of the local mental health center, said more affordable housing would free up social workers “bottlenecks” created by clients’ inability to even begin to get on their feet due to a lack of basic shelter.

Haywood acknowledged the issue. “Put your emphasis on housing first… That’s where all our focus and priority should be in this budget process… at least get a recognition and a commitment” to get housing done “otherwise, we’re just having a conversation April 7… Shelters are expensive and we’ve got to get away from that model. We’ve got to put people in permanent housing and keep them there.” All around the room, people muttered “Amen.”

“I think that there is an opportunity to get more resources,” Haywood continued. “Maybe we have to go project by project, initiative by initiative... This is not a problem the government is going to solve alone. We need our congregations and our interfaith groups to come together” and start buying houses"…

“The need for housing is not limited to the people who need supportive housing,” said Cleveland. “Everybody in advocating has to remember that the plight of the people that are not eligible for any kind of subsidy program is just as real… It isn’t only the low income people who need safe, reliable child care. We’ve got to find the tools that” change builders from thinking they have to buy tiny, expensive plots. They need to build for the largest market. Not doing so “that’s bad, bad for all of us.”

Haywood ended by acknowledging the size of the issues, but pointing out the growing momentum of the response. “We cannot deal with just one issue if we’re going to make a really significant dent [in the county’s social problems]. The fact is that [awareness and desire to address these issues] is out there now in way it’s never been out there before.” Heads nodded all over the room.