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Plan Seeks to Eradicate Homelessness

County strives to increase stock of permanent housing, enhance support services and add job training programs.

Since the county’s emergency winter shelter closed at the beginning of the month, Richard has been sleeping out of the back of his Ford Explorer in Clarendon.

Richard, who declined to give his last name, rises before 5 a.m. every morning to wait in line at a day labor company, hoping he arrives early enough to be picked for a grueling day of manual work at $7 an hour.

HE HAS NOT showered in a week, and a blond- and gray-flecked beard is starting to coalesce around his tanned neck.

At dinnertime last Friday, Richard was one of more than a dozen homeless Arlington residents who gathered in Oakland mini-park in Virginia Square to collect a free brown-bag meal provided by a A-Span, a local nonprofit.

"I don’t try to be like this, but I didn’t have a penny in my pocket" said Richard, 54, who a month ago was kicked out of the Falls Church house he was staying in. "I’m in a rough spot. I’ve hit some bumps, but I’ll get back on the road."

Richard estimates that he has lived in at least 30 different places across Northern Virginia during the past decade. Though he retains a sunny disposition, Richard admits that he will most likely continue living out of his truck until he can scrape together enough money from his day labor work to afford a room somewhere.

"I wish the county could find a cheap way to house people," he said. "I don’t want a big apartment or anything, I just need a room and a shower."

To combat chronic homelessness and help the hundreds of people in the county who like Richard shuffle between temporary accommodations and a life on the streets, Arlington’s Department of Human Services has drafted a new 10-year plan to provide affordable housing and supportive services to all residents.

At its monthly meeting on April 22, the County Board is expected to vote on the proposal, which also strives to expand training opportunities for the homeless population and develop new prevention strategies.

"Closing the front door to homelessness is a community-wide problem, not just a problem for Human Services or nonprofits," said Tony Turnage, Arlington’s homeless program coordinator. "If we can educate people about when others might be in trouble, then we can prevent a number of people from becoming homeless."

DESPITE Arlington’s abundance of wealth, the county struggles to deal with a homeless population that consistently numbers in the mid-400s.

Because homeless individuals tend to float between neighboring jurisdictions, it is difficult to know how many people are without housing in the county. But Lynda Schoenbeck, a division chief for DHS, has seen an increase in the number of homeless families with young children in recent years.

For many Arlington residents homelessness is a "hidden issue," said Lora Rinker, executive director of A-SPAN.

"People think because they don’t see them on the street that they aren’t there," Rinker added. "Not every homeless person is pushing a basket. You can’t really pick them out."

The central element of the county’s new plan is to move families or individuals into permanent housing as quickly as possible. This is referred to as a "housing first" approach, and is based on research showing that individuals are more responsive to social services and intervention if they have a permanent place to live.

"Once housing is stabilized they are much more interested and receptive to other services offered, such as job training or Alcoholics’ Anonymous," said Fran Lunney, the county’s coordinator of Housing Planning.

Last May the County Board approved a new supportive housing plan, which seeks to add 75 permanent units each year for the homeless and individuals with disabilities. Already 36 units for the homeless have come online so far this year, said Cynthia Stevens, the supportive housing coordinator.

Part of the new plan’s goals is creating 10 studio apartments annually for individuals battling chronic homelessness, and to purchase at least 20 units in a single building to create a supportive community for those trying to put their lives back together.

The most recent study of the Arlington homeless population, undertaken in January 2005, showed that a quarter of the 420 homeless individuals suffer from substance abuse, a fifth from mental illness and another quarter from some combination of the two.

Therefore, counseling services are imperative once individuals or families have been placed in housing, county officials said.

These services range from life-saving measures, like ensuring the individual receives their medication or substance abuse assistance, to the more mundane tasks of paying bills on time.

County officials are hoping to begin a peer mentoring program where up to eight former homeless individuals will be trained to assist others who face similar predicaments.

"These individuals have had a very similar experience and that is something [case managers] can’t always capture," said Sara Thompson, Arlington’s supportive housing services manager.

The county will also expand its offerings for 18- to 21-year-olds who have recently been discharged from foster care and are struggling to adjust to independent living.

YET RINKER, of A-SPAN, said that the county’s new plan needs to include funding for a year-round homeless shelter. Otherwise, many people, like Richard, are left sleeping on the streets or in cars during the spring and summer months.

An educational campaign will be conducted to better inform property owners, community organizations and faith-based groups about how to help those who have just lost their housing.

"We need to reach out to landlords and other groups, develop stronger relationships and educate them on what services are available for people about to be made homeless," said Schoenbeck, the DHS division chief.

The final component of the new county initiative is to provide the homeless with training so they can land a steady job. Officials are exploring ways to establish partnerships with local businesses who can provide employment for those in permanent supportive housing.

"The biggest issue is some of these people don’t have training or credentials," said Turnage, Arlington’s homeless program coordinator. "We have to provide them with those, so they can get work."