When the Lamb Center opens its doors each morning, its mission is to provide more than just a meal and a place to wash one’s clothes. The Lamb Center seeks to provide a relationship that many of its visitors can’t find anywhere else.
When Bob Wyatt, executive director of the Lamb Center, speaks about the mostly homeless people who enter the center’s doors each day, it’s as if he’s talking about his own family. He wants them to succeed in life, and he said the walk-in day shelter is capable of allowing them to do so.
“We are a place where people come to have the circumstances of their lives change,” said Wyatt.
Talk of moving the Lamb Center to a new location has circulated for years. The Fairfax City Council and Lamb Center officials agree its current location near Fairfax Circle.
“Trying to service those people isn’t necessarily compatible with the businesses in that area,” said Herb McMullan, the outreach director for Truro Episcopal Church, the church that operates the Lamb Center along with support from at least 20 other area churches. “Businesses are our neighbors too.”
The center is also located next to a 7-Eleven convenience store that sells alcohol. The center has strict rules regarding alcohol. If a guest comes in with alcohol on his or her breath, Wyatt said volunteers offer them the Alcoholics Anonymous program. If they come in drunk, they are banned from the center for 30 days. The volunteers and staff are constantly going outside and checking to make sure people aren’t drinking around the building. Even with the strict alcohol enforcement, Wyatt said the current location “is not a good idea.”
THE PROGRAM has become more sophisticated in recent years, said McMullan. About 60-65 people walk through the doors each day, making the former car radio repair shop overcrowded and sometimes overwhelmed. Last winter, the center had to shut its doors for 48 hours to reorganize after cold weather threatened many of the county’s homeless with hypothermia.
“We got overwhelmed. The staff was taxed to the limit,” said McMullan. “Space dictates what we’re able to do.”
Many faith-based organizations also opened their doors to take people in during the cold weather last winter. Nearly 1,700 volunteers worked with faith partners and the county to prevent hypothermia deaths. Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Gerry Connolly (D-At-large) said the hypothermia program was successful, and acknowledged that the county is looking at the possibility of opening a permanent hypothermia shelter. He said he didn't think it would be possible to open it in time for the upcoming winter season, but did say combining it with a new Lamb Center location was not out of the question.
"The county is looking at that as an option," he said.
FAIRFAX COUNTY has been working on a plan to end homelessness in 10 years. Last April, the Board of Supervisors convened a Community Summit to End Homelessness at Freddie Mac's corporate headquarters in McLean. The summit came together after the board endorsed the creation of a strategic plan to end homelessness last October, but the finalized plan is still in the works. The board recognizes that ending homelessness completely would be a difficult task, but they are focused on supporting the initiative.
"I've been hearing it being described as ending homelessness as we know it," said Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock). "... we're a stong enough community to help people in need get shelter and medical care."
Merni Fitzgerald, a spokeswoman for the Fairfax County government, said affordable housing is always something that helps ease the homeless problem, but other ideas and plans need to supplement that in order to come up with a viable solution.
She could not comment on a possible future location of the Lamb Center or a county hypothermia shelter since an official plan to end homelessness has not yet been presented to the Board of Supervisors. The plan would include options for services and programs that would allow the county achieve the ambitious goal, including possible shelter locations and affordable housing options.
"It's an ongoing process," said Fitzgerald. "It's a continuum to develop a plan to end it [homelessness], not manage it."
In the mean time, the Lamb Center does what it can to manage it, but the center is only providing services to about a fifth of the county's homeless population. McMullan said about 300 to 400 people use the center, out of about 2,000 who could benefit from it.
"I think the Lamb Center provides a wonderful service to a niche in society that is essentially invisible," said Bulova.
ONE PROGRAM the Lamb Center now offers focuses on ending homelessness. The Striving Toward Employment Program (STEPS) teaches job skills that will help people find employment. Finding a job, said both Wyatt and McMullan, is the first step toward rebuilding one's life. After a steady job comes housing, they said. The U.S. Department of Labor gave SkillSource Group Inc., the nonprofit entity of the Northern Virginia Workforce Investment Board, a $450,000 grant to support local faith and community-based organizations. SkillSource then distributed the money to different organizations in Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties, including the Lamb Center. It gave the Lamb Center a $23,000 grant, which resulted in the creation of STEPS. The program has already accepted 62 people, said Wyatt, and has about 20 currently working on getting into it.
“I saw this as a tool to help us in this ministry of life transformation,” said Wyatt. “It was very obvious to me that we needed a better way of connecting with the employers of this region.”
McMullan calls the center a “holistic ministry.” Anyone going for a job interview needs some basic things to prepare them for success, he said. Clean clothes and a shower are two important aspects, but a community of support and friends are also equally important.
“That’s our song; anybody can connect with that,” said McMullan. “Put yourself in their shoes.”
UNDER THE PROGRAM, Lamb Center volunteers and staff members evaluate those in need on their workforce abilities. Since most of the people who come to the Lamb Center are completely homeless, Wyatt said many of them are fighting deep problems and issues, both physically and mentally.
“Many of them are very depressed, very lonely,” said Wyatt. “We need to get together as a community to help one another.”
The program offers basic training for job skills, and since the center provides a place to clean clothes and bathe, all the tools are there to help these people find jobs, said Wyatt. Many people simply need paperwork to get a job, since homelessness isn’t conducive to holding onto important papers. “You’re going to lose all this paperwork,” said Wyatt.
Of the 62 people in the program, 27 have gotten jobs and 17 of them have held his or her job for at least 30 days. On how long it takes to get people in the program ready for a job, Wyatt said it’s usually related to the length of time that person has been homeless. Someone who lost his or her home or job a month ago can probably become prepared to work again faster than someone who has been homeless for a year or longer, said Wyatt. Many are insecure or afraid, but Wyatt said the center provides a brand of support similar to what family and friends would give. Since many of the Lamb Center’s guests lack a family or friend support system, volunteers provide that for them.
“To many of them, I am their papa,” said Wyatt.
“It’s a program that’s been in crisis,” said Mayor Robert Lederer, of the Lamb Center. “As part of that, the city wants to allocate $500,000 to support the center and a new location.”
RUMORS THAT the city and Lamb Center have been at odds are simply untrue, said Lederer, Wyatt and McMullan. The two entities have been working together to try to relocate the center, whether it’s to a different city location or somewhere outside city limits.
Connolly said the city's monetary contribution to moving the center is "a generous proposal," and the county might consider allocating some money for it as well, "depending on the cost structure."
“The center does something the city knows needs to be done,” said McMullan. “The city has been very gracious.”
Debate has occurred over the summer about whether the center was in violation of zoning laws, because of its on-site shower and laundry facilities. The city code is vague, said McMullan, and it isn’t yet clear whose interpretation stands. That isn’t the reason the city is trying to help relocate the center though, said Lederer.
“The city has supported the Lamb Center for 16 years … it’s a wonderful program,” said Lederer. “Due to its success, the current location is dramatically undersized.”
The program is not likely to receive another grant, but Wyatt is optimistic that enough support from the churches and the community will keep it afloat. With or without STEP, the center still isn’t large enough to continue to accommodate the city and surrounding area's homeless as effectively as it would like, said McMullan. A new, larger facility would alleviate some of the space problems, he said. As for where that location will be, nobody knows.
“We’re looking at anything with easy travel distance from the center of the city,” said McMullan.
Since many neighborhoods don’t want the center in their neighborhood, McMullan said it is an ongoing debate on where the right location would be. He said they’ve looked at locations in and outside of the city, and so far nothing has worked.
The city and the center, however, have not given up.
“I would love to see us with a new home identified by the year’s end,” said McMullan.
“I have a profound belief that God is working on the location,” said Wyatt. “We are a place of profound transformation, managed by the Holy Spirit.”