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Residents Unite To End Homelessness

Forum exposes strategies to fight countywide problem.

Ken McMillon woke up in the woods one morning last winter, shivering from the cold temperatures that made their way across the region the previous night. He decided the time had come for him to gather his belongings and return to his mother's house.

"That's when it hit me and I said to myself, 'Damn it Ken! Mom's been dead for a year,'" he said.

McMillon was one of more than 2,000 homeless people in Fairfax County. He became homeless in 2004 after falling ill and losing his job. Although he spent some of the time in motels, Metro stations and friends' houses, McMillon's usual nighttime destination were the woods. "I didn't want the people to know I was there," he said. Pride kept McMillon from seeking help for a long time.

Even when he starved, he refused to ask for food. He only did so after going more than four days without food, but even then, he said, local restaurants would sometimes refuse to hand him the leftover food because he was homeless. Instead, he said, they would dump the food in the garbage. He also remembers walking down the street in the daytime and noticing people's reactions to him. They would look away, or even turn and walk away instead of passing by him. "You have a sense of what people think about you. That I will never forget," said McMillon, emotional from his reflections of the hard times.

Although pride kept him from seeking help for a long time, McMillon eventually entered a hypothermia program last year, provided by the local faith community and coordinated by the Fairfax Area Christian Emergency and Transitional Services, Inc. (FACETS). While he was a hypothermia shelter client last year, this year McMillon served as a volunteer trainer for the service. In February he moved into a temporary transitional unit provided by FACETS' Supportive Housing Program. McMillon also holds a full-time job. He wants to help other homeless people, who he thinks could be a valuable resource to the community.

"These are people who learned to survive," said McMillon. "There has to be some degree of intelligence, and they have to be somewhat innovative and creative."

WHILE McMILLON is doing his part to help the homeless, local organizations involved in the hypothermia shelter program are wondering how they can help once the shelters close on March 31. FACETS CEO Jim Brigl said he expected to feel relieved last year when the hypothermia shelter closed. He expected the volunteers to feel the same way, but what they felt was not relief. "People come away from [volunteering] invigorated," he said. Brigl hopes the urge to help could be employed into a widespread effort to start the process of ending homelessness.

"Danger is averted with hypothermia [shelters]," said Brigl. "Homelessness is ended with houses."

To address the strategies to end homelessness and give direction to those who want to help end it, FACETS conducted a forum on housing the homeless at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax in Oakton on Monday March 19. The forum hosted speakers from other organizations in the Washington Metropolitan area who are using different strategies to fight the issue of homelessness. Verdia Haywood, the deputy county executive for Human Services Fairfax County Initiatives, also spoke at the forum. About 90 people from the community, most of them volunteers from this year's hypothermia shelters, listened to different ways they can help to fight the issue after March 31, when those shelters close.

"Here are some things you can do," said Brigl. "If you have a housing partnership with FACETS, deepen it. If you don't have a housing partnership with FACETS, start it." While FACETS hopes to maintain its temporary housing program, it also hopes to acquire some permanent housing units. Brigl hopes to acquire five such units this year, but in this region that can prove to be expensive. Running the temporary housing units costs FACETS $25,000 each year, while acquiring five condos could cost as much as $1.5 million. He urged those attending the forum to go back to their faith communities, corporations and other people they know to join FACETS in fighting homelessness.

"The challenge of homelessness belongs to all of us," said Brigl. "The solution belongs to all of us too."

"WE'VE GOT to take care of our homeless brothers and sisters," said Haywood. He said Fairfax County is committed to being a partner to end homelessness in the county: on Feb. 24 the Board of Supervisors adopted a 10-year plan to end homelessness. "We are determined to do it," he said.

However, certain challenges had to be met first. "One of the greatest challenges is finding the house in itself," said Haywood. He added that a community-based effort would take place between April and June to put together the implementation plan for the 10-year strategy, which will be presented to the Board of Supervisors for approval in July. "We're going to move from managing homelessness to ending homelessness," said Haywood. He added that more housing needed to be developed, while preserving existing affordable housing. Support services should surround those housing units to help the new tenants keep their housing.

Audience members wanted to know why Fairfax County would take 10 years to end homelessness. McMillon rose to speak. "Most of you have never been homeless. To do something is right," he said. "I implore you to rise above the finger pointing. If he says 10 years, prove him wrong. You have the power to change that," said McMillon.

Michelle Krocker, a member of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance, said the faith community had the power to bring voices together, and demand from the supervisors that more be done to secure affordable housing. "We need to be very forceful," said Krocker. "It's horrible that in a community as wealthy as Fairfax County that we can't house poor single individuals," said Krocker. She urged local churches — some of which own sizable properties — to consider building some units on their properties. "Land is almost better than money, because land is hard to find," she said.

Jerry Poje, the president of the FACETS Board of Directors, urged community members to begin reaching out and finding new partners willing to work towards ending homelessness. "The situation merits accelerated action," said Poje.

McMillon said that while his pride kept him from seeking help for a long time, he would use it to help others. "Pride is minuscule to what people are going through," said McMillon.