Can the County House Its Homeless?

Can the County House Its Homeless?

Committee to End Homelessness unveils its strategy.

The vision is straightforward. “By 2016: Every person in the community will access and maintain decent, safe, affordable housing.” Getting there is more complicated.

“If we’re going to end homelessness rather than manage it, we need to make a major directional shift,” Pam Michell told about 50 people gathered at Gum Springs Community Center recently. Michell, the executive director of New Hope Housing, and a member of Fairfax’s County’s Planning Committee to End Homelessness was sharing the committee’s strategy for achieving its vision statement.

Last spring the committee held three community “dialogues” across the county for insight into its task of crafting a strategy to end homelessness in Fairfax County in ten years, an effort endorsed by the Board of Supervisors almost exactly one year ago.

Michell returned to Mount Vernon last week with Committee Chairman Linda Wimpey and committee member Gerry Williams to present a synopsis of the strategies that the 17-member committee chose. They told the audience that the county must prioritize the homeless both for affordable housing waiting lists and in delivery of human services. It must also adopt a “housing first” philosophy, which prioritizes housing above all other solutions to a person’s problems. Michell said the county must “move people quickly out of shelter and work on the services component when they’re in housing rather than when they’re in shelter.”

Although ending homelessness in Fairfax County will not be easy, Wimpey pointed out that it is “maybe the only county in the United States where [homelessness] is a solvable problem.” The report makes the case for this, describing the county as having “abundant resources, high median income and expensive housing.” But it says the supply of affordable housing is “sorely inadequate.”

A January survey revealed more than 2,000 homeless people in the county. The county has three shelters for families, five for singles and one for victims of domestic violence. The report praises the current system for services it provides to stabilize people’s lives and link them with resources, but criticizes it for a failure to provide long-term permanent housing. “To end homelessness, housing must become the first priority,” the report reads. Michell reiterated this in the meeting. “If you’re going to end homelessness, housing has to happen. The thing that makes people homeless is there’s not a place to live,” she said. “Until there’s a place to move to, it’s pointless.”

BASED ON COUNTY STATISTICS, the report described two reasons for homelessness in Fairfax County. “Single adults become homeless due to disability. Families become homeless due to poverty.” With this in mind, the report called for a strategy of preventing “homelessness due to economic crisis and/or disability.” Instead of tackling prevention one crisis at a time, the report suggests “early, focused and sufficient intervention.” The leaders of the meeting said small groups of volunteers could be organized to monitor their neighbors and intervene when problems were still manageable.

But another strategy, increasing the supply of affordable housing for the poorest people in the county, cannot be accomplished at a local level. Michell said most of the county’s efforts to retain affordable housing, including the penny dedicated to affordable housing from each dollar of property taxes, are not reaching people who are becoming homeless. She suggested a second penny be set aside for people with incomes below 30 percent of the median. She added that zoning laws also must be changed to allow cheap, studio apartments to be built at high densities. This investment, she said, “can be sold on economics.” People without homes often end up using the county’s expensive emergency services, rather than less expensive preventative ones or none at all.

But even for affordable housing, the report has a role for people at the local level. It suggests that faith communities can help subsidize a family’s rent or a unit of affordable housing.

But Williams said none of these strategies can be implemented without proper organization and stable funding. “There’s a lot of good ideas out there. But there’s not enough money.” She said that although the county leadership “is behind us already” there needs to be a structure in place to ensure that goals are implemented and the project is carried forward. She said a much-needed database of information on the county’s homeless is being developed, but crunching numbers alone won’t solve the problem. “We don’t want just people sitting in offices to come up with plans,” she said. “The best people to tell you what to do are people that are currently homeless or have been homeless or work with the homeless on a daily basis.”

Wimpey said the Board of Supervisors will be presented with these strategies soon, and a final plan will be presented over the summer. But she called on audience members to ask themselves, “What can we start doing now?”

“You have to get out and sell it,” she said. “We have to begin doing that now. We have to get out and starting talking about what we want to see in our community.”