Jim Brigl has seen all sides of homelessness in Fairfax County. In his 20 years of working with mental health, substance abuse and housing issues, Brigl has worked directly with homeless clients in Alexandria's Mondloch House, developed programs during eight years with Fairfax County's Department of Housing and Community Development, and advocated for housing issues on Capitol Hill.
In January, Brigl started as CEO of Fairfax Area Christian Emergency & Transitional Services, Inc. (FACETS) after Linda Wimpey, founder and CEO, retired last year. FACETS began in 1988 as a nonprofit organization providing emergency intervention and educational programs for homeless and low-income people in the county. According to FACETS statistics, the organization provided 40,000 hot meals last year for an average of 105 homeless or low-income individuals per night. Through his work in Fairfax County, Brigl had worked with FACETS for years and knows the organization’s mission well.
"What I want to make sure is that FACETS remains on the cutting edge of doing what is necessary to meet our mission," said Brigl.
"It's all about giving [homeless and low-income clients] choices in their lives, and he's very skilled at doing that," said board member Jerry Poje. According to Poje, Brigl was a unanimous choice for the job among board members.
"[Brigl] had quite a winning way and listened to all parties he was involved with, had extensive interactions with the staff, and spoke about the organization's current structure and what would like to do for future," said Poje.
Poje, who works with the homeless through his Unitarian church in Fairfax, said he had a chance to see Brigl "in action" working with shelter guests, volunteers, and faith partners at the Hypothermia Response Program, which FACETS runs with the Lamb Center and area churches.
"He has a wonderful touch with people, and a great depth of knowledge about social service," said Poje.
THE HYPOTHERMIA program is a primary goal for Brigl in his future at FACETS. Two winters ago, he said, three homeless people died of hypothermia. Last year, in an effort to keep that from happening again, FACETS and the Lamb Center partnered with local churches to provide a hot meal and a warm place to sleep for homeless individuals on particularly cold winter nights. This year, said Brigl, the project expanded to open every night from Dec. 1 to March 31. So far, he said, no hypothermia deaths have occurred.
The hypothermia program's overwhelming response indicates the great need for it in the community, said Brigl. Workers expected 40 guests to the program on any given night, but instead have received over 80.
"It's been quite a success as far as I'm concerned," said Poje.
The program also helps FACETS workers and volunteers develop relationships with homeless and low-income people in the county, said Brigl. These relationships are invaluable to Brigl, as they become lasting links to the community FACETS serves and allows the organization to be as effective as possible. From his earliest days working with low-income or homeless people, he said, the most important part of the job has always been getting to know the individuals.
"To lead, you need to know your clients," Brigl. said. This is why he loves his job: every day for two decades he has been able to watch people overcome obstacles, like the former firefighter who lost his job and became homeless, but who was looking forward to a job at Home Depot.
"I get the opportunity to watch people rekindle hope," he said. "How much of a gift is that?"
BRIGL GREW UP wanting to help people. As a child in North Dakota, he said, he wanted to become a Catholic priest. He graduated with a degree in social work from St. Francis University in Fort Wayne, Ind., and studied for a masters of divinity at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Ill. For 13 years, Brigl was a member of the Crosier Order of priests and brothers.
In 1981, Brigl arrived in Northern Virginia intending to stay for four months. Instead, he found a job at Mondloch House and has worked in Fairfax County ever since. Before he came to FACETS, Brigl was executive director at Community Residences, a nonprofit that provides services for the homeless and mentally challenged.
"Going way back, Jim was one of the people who were really tied into the mission of what we do," said Kathleen Wellington, director of mental health services at Community Residences. "He and I are able to disagree in a real professional way and we both end up seeing each other's points of views. I'd say he was one of our best executive directors." His love of helping people was evident on a daily basis, she said.
According to Barb McConnell, Brigl’s sister, growing up in a supportive and caring household had much to do with her brother's lifetime focus on service.
"Our parents raised us that way without saying anything," she said. "They led by example." Whenever a family member needs something, someone is always there to help, she said.
"In my family, it was all about helping others," said Brigl.
Although Brigl was several years older than McConnell growing up, he always took time to write her letters and call her on her birthday. When she was 20, she went to Philadelphia to work as a nanny. Brigl would visit her when she felt overwhelmed by the city, she said.
"He always had a connection with people and a compassion for people," said McConnell, who now lives in Bismarck, N.D. "When I think of Jim, I think of compassion."
Brigl's main goals for FACETS, besides expanding the hypothermia program, are to build lasting relationships with the organization's faith partners, to ensure that area development does not wipe out affordable housing options, and to seek long-term solutions for the housing problem.
Poje, Wellington and Brigl all agree that the lack of affordable housing in Fairfax County is the most significant problem when it comes to homelessness.
"There is much more knowledge in the community on the issue [of homelessness]," said Brigl. "But affordable housing is out of reach for people." Shelters are necessary, he said, but establishing means for families and individuals to obtain and keep their homes is the ultimate objective. Thirty-five to 40 percent of homeless people have jobs, he said, but simply cannot afford rent or mortgages on top of other expenses on the salaries they have.
"Some [homeless people] have had work accidents and have lost their jobs, some have severe mental disabilities, some have addictions," said Poje. "Each of these, I think, has a certain special nature to social services that would bring to bear on their case in a way that gives them control over their lives."
Brigl also said he will pay close attention to a plan by the City of Fairfax for economic revitalization of the Route 50 corridor. The road is home to motels that serve as temporary housing for 15 families, he said.
"I'm very concerned about what that means to the poor people who live in this corridor," said Brigl. He will pursue an "active dialogue" with the city during the process, he said.
Programs such as transitional housing, which helps families become independent through finishing school or finding jobs, or single-room occupancy housing, that provides low-rent rooms to single individuals, should be expanded in order to effectively create long-term solutions, he said.
"Ten to 12 [single-occupancy] units certainly isn't enough," said Brigl. "There is a great need for more."