Fairfax County has put forth an initiative to end homelessness in the county by 2015, and it's an initiative some say is too ambitious.
"Unless something is done, this whole idea of ending homelessness in 10 years is a pipe dream," said Sam Koons, of the Good Shepherd Alliance, a non-profit Christian organization in Loudoun County providing assistance to the homeless. "You gotta get people's attention."
The county's Community Council on Homelessness formed the Planning Committee to End Homelessness last July, in order to come up with a final plan to present to the Board of Supervisors later this year that will combat the problem of more than 2,000 homeless people in the county. The committee developed the vision to not only end homelessness all together, but to make sure everyone in the county has a safe and affordable home. At a June 14 dialogue in Fairfax, stemming from the April 7 Fairfax County Summit to End Homelessness, faith-based volunteers, non-profits and county officials came together to discuss how feasible the plan really is and put forth ideas for achieving its long term goal.
"It sounds like an impossible thing to solve, but we can do it,” said Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock) at the June 14 dialogue.
Freddie Mac, both its corporation and foundation, which focuses on giving children and families better opportunities through affordable housing, put together the April 7 summit at its headquarters in McLean. Members of the Board of Supervisors were on hand to listen and discuss ideas for affordable housing, health care, wages, language and jobs. The conversations from the summit will help the committee develop its 10-year plan to end homelessness. Shawn Flaherty, spokeswoman for Freddie Mac, said the summit helped provide insight into how important this issue is to the county.
"We wanted to help provide a place to convene," said Flaherty. "A lot of it's about working together and getting resources in place."
THE SUMMIT was successful in that it got people thinking of ideas for solutions, said Flaherty, and the results from other counties and communities presented there really gave Fairfax County officials a reason to believe the plan could work, she said.
"A real solution will require enormous creativity and innovative thinking," said Board of Supervisors Chair Gerry Connolly (D-At-large) at the April 7 summit.
That thinking and creativity is what the June 14 dialogue, the last of four stemming from the larger summit, tried to initiate. The majority of the 60 or so attendees came from faith-based organizations, many of whom provided emergency shelter care for the homeless during the winter months.
Koons attended the dialogue just one day before moving into a shelter in Leesburg, where he will gauge the needs of those served by the shelter.
“A lot of people wouldn’t want to do this,” said Koons. “I want to be able to get to know them a little bit better.”
Koons said he wants to bring back information from his experience at the shelter to help others come up with effective plans. He has a master's degree in counseling, and said it will come in handy when talking to people he meets at the shelter. He pointed out that he will not be there as a counselor, but more as an observer of homeless people's behaviors, needs and desires, thus giving him insight into the services needed to help them.
Michael Milner, a housing developer, is working with the county on ways to achieve the 10-year goal to end homelessness. He presented a model at the dialogue that showed effective housing options, called Residential Studio Units, in other cities. Units in Sacramento, San Diego and Palo Alto, Calif. have proved to be successful, he said. This housing option is part of mixed-use development, with commercial units taking up the first one or two floors, while the studio units exist on the top floors. Milner said Fairfax County will have to adapt its mixed-use zoning laws for the option to be viable here.
"We have a philosophical commitment from supervisors and zoning folks, and we have sources of money and land," said Milner. "I believe we have all the resources here in Fairfax County to get this done, except the zoning."
ONE PROBLEM with county zoning laws, said Milner, is the parking space requirements. The law currently requires 1.6 spaces per residential unit, and the models Milner presented from California have only 0.1 spaces allotted in some cases. The model also requires that the units exist in close proximity to public transportation, and that they exist in densely populated areas. Finding places that meet these parameters in suburban Fairfax County will take a long time, said Pat Deavers, of the New Hope Fellowship in Chantilly.
"My heart breaks for my parishioners who are sleeping outside," said Deavers. "Ten years is a long time to live in the woods. We need to do something for these people right now."
Supervisor Bulova pointed out that the parking space issue could be more problematic than it appears with the studio unit housing model. While people moving into these studio units might not have cars at first, many will likely purchase cars after receiving the housing help that gets them on their feet again, she said.
Nathan Dennis, a faith-based volunteer, came to the dialogue to learn about the alternatives and ask questions of his own, one of which dealt with the idea that a good homeless model in Fairfax might attract even more of the homeless to the area. He said the idea of creating such an extensive program here causes concern that the program might actually increase the homeless population.
"[The model] needs a lot of work," said Milner.
That is why the dialogues, committees and summits have been taking place. The point is to share ideas and come up with solutions together, before presenting the final plans to the Board of Supervisors in the fall.
John Callaghan, from Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources (OAR) of Fairfax County, said when the 10-year plan is officially drafted, it will be posted on the Web so people can provide feedback [www.fairfaxcounty.gov/homeless].
"We need to look at a variety of options available to us," said Callaghan.