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A-SPAN Delivers for Arlington’s Homeless Population

Nonprofit receives Human Rights Award for helping homeless individuals secure housing, find employment and kick addictions.

As the temperature drops with each passing night, Jeffrey Johnson is unsure how much longer he can continue living in a tent on the banks of the Potomac River in Rosslyn.

The Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network has provided the genial 40-year-old with blankets and a sleeping bag, but the cold winds ripping off the river are making him long for a solid roof over his head.

Last year he spent many a frigid night in the county’s emergency winter shelter, which is run by A-SPAN, and expects to do so again this year. At the shelter Johnson can enjoy a warm meal, pick up toiletries and collect some winter clothing.

“A-SPAN has helped me a lot,” said Johnson, who recently left his job as a housekeeper and has bounced around homes in the region for the past eight and a half years. “They are really there for me.”

A-SPAN provides Johnson with a host of other services. One afternoon last week Johnson stopped by the organization’s office in Shirlington, where he was able to grab a quick shower and do a load of laundry. He also chatted with a mental health counselor, who pressed Johnson to continue taking his medication and regularly meet with his psychiatrist.

Every evening in Rosslyn, Johnson picks up a free brown-bagged meal provided by A-SPAN volunteers. “The staff and the meals are great, but they apple and banana you to death,” Johnson said, flashing his trademark wit.

Johnson is one of the nearly 870 individuals that A-SPAN has served so far this year. Though some of the clients, like Johnson, battle chronic homelessness, many others are temporarily out on the streets and need food and housing assistance for a short duration.

Despite Arlington’s abundance of wealth, the county struggles to deal with a homeless population that consistently numbers in the mid-400s, according to county officials. And many of these individuals turn to A-SPAN for shelter, counseling, outreach services and employment training.

This Thursday the Arlington Human Rights Commission will honor A-SPAN with its 2006 James B. Hunter Human Rights Award for its advocacy of and dedication to the issue of homelessness in the county.

The other winners of the annual award are Susan Prokop, a director for the Paralyzed Veterans of America; Rhonda Buckner, a long-time advocate for the mentally disabled; and the Washington Shakespeare Company, for its commitment to diversity in casting and choosing performances.

A-SPAN IS THE BRAINCHILD of Lora Rinker, who first began to hand out free meals with a group of other volunteers in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in the late 1980s. Rinker realized that what the individuals needed most was a place where they could sleep at night during the winter; the county had no homeless shelter at the time.

“Handing out food was great, but we had all these other issues that needed to be addressed,” said Rinker, sitting in the nonprofit’s Shirlington home.

The winter shelter first opened in December of 1990, under the auspices of the Red Cross. A-SPAN was officially formed in and took over responsibility for the shelter.

In this, its 15th year of operation, the organization is serving more clients than ever before. In 1999 A-SPAN assisted 281 individuals; by last fiscal year the number had risen to 839.

More than half of the organization’s $750,000 annual budget comes from private donations, fundraising and corporate sponsors. The county chips in $100,000 a year — most of which goes toward paying for the winter shelter — and A-SPAN receives $200,000 in federal HUD grants.

The shelter is open every night from Nov. 1 through March 31, and is located in a county-owned building in Courthouse. The facility is slated to be redeveloped at some point in the future, and the county has promised A-SPAN it will supply space for a shelter nearby.

For years the organization has been pressing the county to extend the shelter year-round, but the request so far has been denied, Rinker said. Having a permanent place where people can stay in the spring and summer — rather than sleeping on the street or in cars — will make it more likely that the individuals will be able to hold down a steady job.

“It’s a tremendous help to people if they have somewhere to rest and clean up before going to work,” she added.

EVERY EVENING A-SPAN volunteers dole out between 50 and 60 paper bag meals at locations in Rosslyn and Virginia Square. If the nonprofit had more funds it would attempt to set up a third drop-off point, Rinker said.

The newest program developed by A-SPAN is called “Opportunity Place,” which helps homeless individuals become self-sufficient, and find permanent jobs and housing. Five outreach managers and counselors work out of the office in Shirlington, where individuals can come, like Johnson did last week, to seek assistance and take a shower.

The outreach workers help anyone who comes in off the streets and asks for assistance. “They have to come here on their own, but then we assess what services they need and how we can help them,” said Olga Garcia, an A-SPAN case manager.

Many of those who come through the door suffer from substance abuse issues, and the counselors help steer them toward detox programs.

Rene Segovia, 40, had been living on the streets for almost a year before he came to the A-SPAN offices. Outreach workers helped him get into a three-month rehab program and he has now been sober for more than three years.

“It’s very hard to get off the street on your own, even if you want to,” said Segovia, who now has his own apartment nearby and works as a furniture deliveryman.

A crucial responsibility of the outreach workers is job training, helping the individuals secure steady employment so they can get off the streets for good. Many of the clients they assist have little idea how to craft a resume, and need to be coached on how to interview for jobs and how to act once they are in the workplace, said Lucy Cronin, a case manager.

A-SPAN OFFICIALS spend much of their time working with the county and other nonprofits to find supportive housing units for their clients. Individuals are more responsive to social services and intervention if they have a permanent place to live, A-SPAN officials said.

“It’s so much easier to work with people if they have a place to live,” Rinker added.

But the county is struggling to come up with enough units to meet the demand. As of this spring, 36 units for the homeless had already come online this year, but recent human services cuts severely jeopardizes the county’s goal of adding a significant number of new units in the future.

“There are so many hoops you have to jump through to get housing,” said Cronin. “Many get frustrated and take the past of least resistance — which is staying on the streets.”