You earn a minimum wage, your child needs medical care and the landlord's threatening eviction because you're two months behind in the rent. Or you don't even have a job and are forced to live on the street, beneath the trailer of an 18-wheeler truck.
GRANTED, this isn't the scenario for most residents in Centreville, Chantilly and Clifton. But it's everyday life for enough of them that Western Fairfax Christian Ministries is struggling to meet the continually increasing demand for its services.
"The number of families in western Fairfax County needing assistance — 2,000 — is staggering," said WFCM Director of Development Monica Hebert. "Approximately 3 percent of the people living within the geographic boundaries served by WFCM live below the poverty line."
Besides providing food, clothing, furniture, transportation, school supplies, holiday baskets and refurbished computers to needy families, WFCM is a critical lifeline for families needing emergency assistance. It keeps their utilities on and their rent paid, but the money it uses for these things is in serious need of replenishment.
Toward that end, WFCM is holding an Internet auction, "Catalyst for Spirit," from April 1 at 8 a.m. to April 22 at 8 p.m. Funds raised will help WFCM continue to keep the wolf at bay for individuals and families on the verge of losing their homes.
To participate, go to www.wfcmva.cmarket.com/ and bid on the items available. They include autographed footballs from Washington Redskin Clinton Portis and Pittsburgh Steeler Jerome Bettis, as well as a weekend package on Broadway in New York, a golf game with Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) and three guests, homemade gourmet dinners, hot-air balloon rides and more.
Donations may also be made at the Web site, and they are sorely needed. "Each year, WFCM serves 1,200 families with one or a combination of its services — the bare necessities of living," said Hebert. "In [calendar year] 2005, some 524 families received rental or utility assistance amounting to $135,000. And 700 additional families were assisted with $700,000 worth of food — a 37 percent increase over the prior year."
Between July 2005 and February 2005, WFCM provided $85,000 in emergency financial assistance, alone, to 334 families and gave food to 780 families. And in February 2006, it gave 2,000 bags of food to 390 families."
Here in western Fairfax County — land of the SUV, half-million-dollar townhouses and enough disposable income for vacations, youth sports, iPods, music lessons and other amenities — it's easy to overlook the invisible poor. That's because they're not bums and derelicts, too lazy to get a job.
Instead, they're hardworking people treading water to keep from drowning in a sea of debt in one of the most affluent areas of the U.S. And because $800,000 to $1,000,000 homes make more money for builders and developers than do affordable houses and apartments, residents here earning yearly salaries in the $30,000-$40,000 range find it extremely difficult making ends meet.
Hebert said children and families make up the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population, and 85 percent of the homeless in shelters have jobs. "Homeless people are not drunks and addicts," she said. "Here in Fairfax County, it's a 27-year-old single mother with two children under the age of 6."
In addition, said Hebert, "Homeless children are twice as likely to get sick and more likely to perform poorly in school."
Some 50 percent of the families WFCM helps are female heads of households — 40 percent, African-American; 30 percent, Caucasian; and the rest, Hispanic, South Asian and Middle Eastern. Hebert said 85 percent of them are employed, but have a tough time making it on service-industry wages.
For example, she said, "We have one family of four — a mom and three kids — living on $3,000/month, with no health insurance, and a rent payment of $1,475/month. What makes this even worse is that there's no public-transportation service to take them to places where they could get other jobs."
In some cases, said Hebert, the family has already lost its home and "the kids are living in a car with mom in the woods. And the mom makes just a bit too much to be eligible for HUD services — Section 8 or public-assistance housing. If you make more than $1,200/month, you can't get public assistance."
That's why Hebert and everyone else associated with WFCM hopes as many people as possible will participate in the auction "so we can help those families we already serve and can also expand our services." WFCM wants to hire a Spanish-speaking social worker, plus additional staff to meet the growing need. It also needs more space for its food pantry and a multipurpose room where it could provide nutritional information and life-skills classes.
Jo Ann Duggan, WFCM's director of emergency assistance, says funds are also needed so the organization could help some of the families with rent more than once a year. Currently, that's all WFCM can afford.
"Now, we have to restrict it," she said. "But two months of rent is easily $3,000, and I get a lot of repeat requests from the same families because they're struggling. They're working at a wage that can't support where they're living."
Duggan said many are sharing places — renting rooms or living in others' basements. "If they're out of work a week, it throws them into a crisis situation because they don't get paid," she explained. "And illness or car repairs — things others might be able to take in stride — set a downward spiral in motion. Then they can't pay their rent or other bills."
That's why, said Duggan, "A lot of people rely on us for food to help see them through the month — or even a week. And it's not just because of emergencies; it's because they don't make enough money. So the online auction is really worth a try. If we can increase our donations and fund-raising, we can help more people."