An influx of guests in a too-small space caused the Lamb Center, a daytime homeless shelter in Fairfax Circle, to shut down temporarily while administrators and local officials discussed aid for the overwhelmed center. The center reopened Wednesday, March 8 after closing for 48 hours Monday and Tuesday.
The drop-in center is run by Truro Episcopal Church and offers laundry services for homeless individuals, as well as a place to shower and receive spiritual guidance. The number of guests using the center has increased steadily over the years, said director Bob Wyatt, to the point where it became hard for the small facility to properly serve them all.
"We had 70-80 people using us every day," said Wyatt.
LAST YEAR, the Lamb Center and Fairfax Area Christian Emergency and Transitional Services (FACETS) partnered with area churches to offer a hypothermia prevention program, where homeless individuals could find a hot meal and warm place to sleep on the coldest nights of the winter. This year, the Hypothermia Response Program expanded, to be open every night from December to March at various churches. But where the program's organizers expected 30-40 guests at the clinic, actual attendance was regularly closer to 80.
Henry Brinton, pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church, hosted the hypothermia clinic at his church in December and was struck by the number of people who showed up.
According to Wyatt, the popularity of the hypothermia program pushed the Lamb Center to a breaking point, so that they had to step back and examine a way to more effectively run the center.
"Unfortunately, the program is a victim of its own success, and as result my description of it would be a program in crisis," said Mayor Rob Lederer.
"We’ve made changes in order to not be swamped by number of people coming in," said Wyatt. Mostly, he said, this meant separating the Lamb Center's daytime shelter mission from the hypothermia program's overnight mission. According to FACETS CEO Jim Brigl, last week Wyatt asked FACETS not to use the Lamb Center to pick up and drop off hypothermia shelter guests.
On Monday, hypothermia program guests began using Draper Drive Park off Fairfax Boulevard to wait for transportation to the overnight shelters rather than having them wait at the Lamb Center. Fairfax County donated two Connector buses for guests to sit in during the afternoon as they waited for transportation to the hypothermia program. Hopefully, said Wyatt, giving hypothermia program guests another place to spend the day will take some of the pressure off the Lamb Center.
"The hypothermia clinic is running fine now, but what is clear is that the hypothermia project is a very fragile system," said Brigl. It depends completely upon the collaboration of churches, FACETS, and the Lamb Center, and if one of them has a crisis, then the entire program is affected.
Lamb Center staff spent some of Monday and Tuesday reorganizing the space inside the facility as well, something they would not have been able to do if the center had been open, said Wyatt.
RUMORS CIRCULATED throughout the city that the center was closing for good. Despite the recent struggles, said Wyatt, the Lamb Center has never considered permanently shutting its doors.
"It's nice that everyone is concerned about us and I feel embarrassed that the rumors are going around that we closed, but it's certainly not true," he said.
"It was a matter of having two days to step back and look at our space and our ministry," said Tom Riley of Truro Episcopal, who is project manager for the center. Lamb Center staff knew for some time that they would have to take a break like this one, and delayed it until the weather was relatively better, he said.
Even so, said Riley, the Lamb Center must look at a more permanent solution.
"We knew that we'd been working for some time with the county and city to explore other sites that would be better for our growing needs," said Riley.
Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence) agreed. "One of the things we've got to be looking for is a permanent fix," she said. "The Lamb Center is overwhelmed."
According to Fairfax city manager Bob Sisson, the city and county are putting together a task force to examine the Lamb Center and similar facilities. Part of the process, he said, will be looking at new locations.
"We can practically all agree that the current location is not the best," said Sisson, citing its small size. The heavy traffic in Fairfax Circle causes problems for pedestrians walking to and from the Lamb Center, he said.
"The long-term solution would be multiple Lamb Centers, not just one," said Lederer.
What is not certain is whether a possible new location will be within city limits or out in the county. According to Riley, there are no definite options right now, but the ideal location would be central to the county and light on traffic.
NEARLY 2,000 HOMELESS people live in Fairfax County, including more than 300 families, 700 children and 800 single adults. This is why the Lamb Center's ministry is so important, said Wyatt.
"Whenever you have a wealthy area, you have very deep pockets of hidden insidious poverty, and that poverty has a great sense of depression to it," he said.
The overwhelming number of guests at the Lamb Center is the sign of a much more serious problem, said Brinton.
"Those working in low-wage jobs cannot afford even the most basic housing," he said. "I was really struck in conversations with the homeless we had here in Fairfax Presbyterian in December that these persons were, for the most part, workers … but the wages they were receiving were not enabling them to live anywhere."