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Helping Out Hypothermia Shelter

Volunteers turn out to support life-saving effort.

Multipurpose took on a new meaning in Reston when the multipurpose room at the North County Governmental Center became a hypothermia prevention center for the local homeless population. Since January 1, a little over 70 different people have spent at least a night in the room, staying away from the winter weather outside.

"The goal of the hypothermia [prevention] program is to keep people alive long enough so that you can help them," said Marte Birnbaum, director of the Embry Rucker Community Shelter and the North County Hypothermia Center in Reston, which holds up to 25 people. Reston Interfaith runs both Embry Rucker and the hypothermia center. Birnbaum said that if people are kept alive through the winter season, then other issues – such as health and economic issues – that cause their homelessness could be tackled.

This winter marks the first time there has been a hypothermia center in the northern part of Fairfax County. "It’s been a good start," said Birnbaum. The center relies on volunteer support for its daily operations. "There is a large turnout [of volunteers] from the faith community and also individuals who have joined," said Birnbaum. She added that the hypothermia center in Reston served on average 18 people per night in January, and 22 people per night in February.

Members of the Heritage Fellowship Church on Fox Mill Road brought and served dinner to the clients on Monday night. Angela Harpalani of Herndon said members of the church also participate in other Reston Interfaith-sponsored activities. She said the volunteers do more than just feed people at the center, they support Reston Interfaith in its broader effort to get homeless back on their feet. "This is what Jesus would have done," added Harpalani. She said Heritage's Church-in-Society Ministry has a mission of advocating in areas of human service, justice and peace.

Marilyn Silvey coordinates volunteers from the United Christian Parish church in Reston. They work at the hypothermia center on Thursday nights. "I have found volunteers amazingly interested in getting involved. People are really concerned," said Silvey. She added that work at the center has put a face on homelessness. Silvey said that providing a hot dinner, a cold breakfast and a bagged lunch for 30 clients costs between $200 and $250. Despite the cost, she said, community response has been overwhelming.

"We are really lucky to be in such a great community," said Judith Eisen, the community resource coordinator at Reston Interfaith. She said that an overwhelming number of volunteers turned out for volunteer training days, and that the individuals and groups are committed to the goals and causes of the hypothermia center.

ASIDE FROM the support from the community another positive outcome of the hypothermia prevention center, according to Birnbaum, is the increased coordination and cooperation between different agencies and organization in Fairfax County. She said there are weekly conference calls between people representing the police department, emergency response services, different county agencies and people representing shelters and hypothermia centers. "We discuss what happens each week, and we share information," said Birnbaum. She hopes the discussion will help Fairfax County better understand what it needs to do in its long term plan to end homelessness. "The bright spot for me is that in Fairfax County there are these new efforts," said Birnbaum. She said initializing hypothermia centers is one new tool to fight homelessness. "There is a lot of new stuff in the area of medical outreach," she said.

Embry Rucker hosted a medical services pilot last year, which increased hours for the on-site nurse practitioner. In 2005, before the pilot was initiated, 47 people received medical attention at the shelter. Last year, however, 129 people received medical services. "It helped us to do outreach," said Birnbaum. If one person’s cold is treated, then maybe that person could be incited to seek shelter and perhaps a case manager to help that person get back on his or her feet. "These tools are a foundation on which we can build the plans to end homelessness," said Birnbaum.

While the Reston hypothermia center has had a good first year, Birnbaum said it was unlikely Fairfax County could provide the same space for next winter’s center. "It is probably unlikely that we will have this spot," she said. Birnbaum added she hoped Reston Interfaith could find another fixed location for next year’s center, instead of operating on a rolling system, such as the center in the central part of the county. "It would be nice if we could find a home next year. A similar, one place where we can be during the season," said Birnbaum. She added that a space between 1,200 and 1,500 square feet would probably be enough to accommodate the same numbers of people as this year.