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Step in the Right Direction

Thousands of walkers expected at National Mall for Help the Homeless Walkathon this weekend.

More than a dozen organizations in Fairfax County spend thousands of dollars each year to help families in danger of becoming homeless. On Saturday, Nov. 18, those organizations will come together with the Fannie Mae Foundation for the annual Help the Homeless Walk, in the hopes of raising money to continue their good work.

The walk, which began in 1988 as a response to the growing number of homeless families in the Washington area, is expected to draw more than the 110,000 walkers who participated in last year's event, which raised over $7.8 million and benefited 178 organizations in the region.

One of those beneficiaries, Western Fairfax Christian Ministries of Chantilly, used the money it received last year to fund its resident assistant program, said executive director Dorothy Fanow.

"We've had this program for about three years now, and every family that's been in the program since it started has been able to stay in their homes," Fanow said.

The 33-month program is designed to get families on the right financial track to not only stay in their homes, but to improve job skills and career training to become self-sufficient and economically stable, she said.

"Right now, about 69 percent of families in the program have improved their job status, 46 percent have savings and 30 percent have started mutual funds or 401(k)s," Fanow said.

The amount of money each group receives from the fund raiser is determined by the number of walkers it has, so to boost their own numbers, WFCM often sponsors mini-walks at local schools in addition to taking a group of volunteers to the main walk itself.

"We've had five or six mini-walks this year, which have to be conducted between September and Nov. 1," Fanow said. "We won't know how many walkers we had or how much money we'll receive until February or March."

HOUSING AND COMMUNITY Services of Northern Virginia, a Springfield-based organization, is another of the 17 groups in Northern Virginia to benefit from the walk.

"The money we receive is used to fill gaps where it's needed," said Tamara Deuse, acting executive director and housing coordinator for HCSNV. "Last year, we received $20,000 from the Fannie Mae Foundation from the walk."

Deuse said her organization works to keep families from losing their homes by offering emergency financial assistance in times of need, in addition to job training and skills counseling.

"We also provide assistance to people who are searching for affordable housing, which there isn't much of in Fairfax County," Deuse said.

HCSNV is currently working to assemble a large group of volunteers to walk on their behalf on Saturday, as a change in leadership didn't leave much time to organize mini-walks this year, Deuse said.

"If people want, they can make donations directly to us even after the walk by going to our Web site or the one for the Fannie Mae Foundation," she said.

The Lorton Community Action Center received $29,000 from the Walkathon last year, said Executive Director Steve Rorke. A total of 1,500 people walked on behalf of LCAC, mostly through mini-walks at schools.

The money LCAC received was used to help some of the 600 families that visited LCAC last winter to stay in their homes, by providing emergency financial assistance for those families who cannot pay their rent or utility bills, Rorke said.

"This time of year we start to see an increase in utility bills which puts a crimp in low-income families' budgets," he said. "The money we receive is very important, it makes a big difference in how we're able to help our community."

Participating in the walk is also fun for the volunteers who go to the big event on the Mall, he said, but there's an educational aspect as well.

"When we do the mini-walks at the schools, there's an educational component as we teach the kids about causes of homelessness and how it can be prevented," Rorke said.

Stacey Stewart, president and chief executive officer of the Fannie Mae Foundation, said the Foundation never sets a goal for how many walkers it hopes to have participate or how much money it hopes to raise, only that it's more successful every year.

This year's honorary chair for the event is singer Jewel, who has her own story of being homeless and living in her car, Stewart said.

"We've always had celebrities or athletes acting as our chair, but this is obviously something close to Jewel's heart," she said.

On any given day, more than 12,000 people in the Washington area are homeless. Nearly 30 percent of those on the streets are children, a number that continues to rise.

"Some of the people who are homeless are suffering from mental illness, but there are people who are living with their families that simply can't afford housing despite working," Stewart said.

A total of 300 organizations will benefit from the money raised during the Help the Homeless Walkathon, 17 of which are in Fairfax County. The money will go to groups that provide services to homeless families, ranging from medical attention to financial aid to prevent them from losing their homes.

"The ways in which people become homeless are varied, so it takes a multi-pronged approach to give them the support they need," Stewart said.