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Out of the Woods

Mondloch House’s staff builds relationships with the chronically homeless.

In 1978, New Hope Housing turned an old farmhouse off Route 1 into a homeless shelter. Mondloch House was the first shelter in Fairfax County. Now, New Hope is Northern Virginia’s largest provider of shelter beds, and for the last two years, Mondloch has again been pushing the limits of how shelter is being provided to the region’s homeless.

“It was designed to see what happened if you just threw out all the rules of how a typical shelter runs,” explained New Hope’s Director Pam Michell. Mondloch specializes in housing people who “insist on living in the woods,” the chronically homeless. Unlike in larger shelters, there is no bedtime and no sign-out sheets. The only rules are no violence and no drugs. The shelter can house seven people at a time, and its four full-time staff members try to create a family atmosphere.

“Our number one goal is to build a relationship with the resident, to build trust and rapport and then to engage them in services. We don’t mandate services,” said Laura Martin, the shelter’s coordinator. “Other shelters basically have a lot of rules. They require residents to meet with mental health staff, share documentation of savings and employment, to be sober, to meet with medical doctors and address their medical issues. Other shelters also don’t let residents spend nights out.”

“Our end goal is still to address residents’ medical concerns, mental health concerns, whatever they may have, but our approach is different.”

The approach seems to be working. Of the 21 homeless people Mondloch has served, seven are currently living there, seven have moved into supportive housing, one moved to assisted living and one moved to a shared, subsidized unit. Fairfax’s Department of Family Services provides most of Mondloch’s funding. Martin said it is a bargain for the county. “We’re reducing the cost to society in terms of hospitalizations both psychiatric and medical, as well as arrests and incarcerations, all the expenses related to that.” She said that the bulk of resources devoted to the homeless population goes to the 20 percent who are chronically homeless. Focusing on getting that 20 percent in shelter frees resources for people who need less help getting out of homelessness. In December, Governor Timothy Kained awarded New Hope staff the 2006 Virginia Housing Award for Best Housing Program.

“I HAVE SEEN EVERY SINGLE SUBWAY EXIT,” said Hiruye Afework, an immigrant from Eritrea who has been at Mondloch since it opened. He explained that when he was homeless he would band together with seven or eight colleagues and spend the day in the relative cleanliness and safety of Metro stations. He stayed with groups because it minimized the “biggest problem” for the homeless: crime. “They take your blanket, steal things and sometimes beat you up. And crime is very scary, so you have a hard time sleeping.”

Afework said his time in other shelters has given him perspective to appreciate Mondloch’s storage space, private rooms, thrice-daily meals, laundry facilities, showers and in-house medication “It gives you some hope, you know,” he said of the amenities. “We take trips also, to make it more interesting. It’s like a vacation. That’s what it takes to really help survive.”

Afework believes he is making progress. He is treating his depression with medication that he says helps him concentrate. He hopes to go back to work. “In some shelters people come back the same way they entered. They haven’t changed anything.”

In those larger, more structured shelters, “they always lack something out of the whole picture. This is the only place I have seen that has the entire picture covered.”

“OUR RESIDENTS ARE ONE OF A KIND. They are very intelligent,” said Jerry Allsbrook, who has been a residential counselor at Mondloch since it opened. “You accept them as they are and just work with them. It helps to be able to recognize their positives, help bring out the positives in them.”

Louis Kelly’s room is a spic and span series of geometric angles, everything neatly tucked away. Before he came to Mondloch he had been living in a garage and going to the outpatient shelter at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital’s Mental Health Unit.

Kelly converted his living space into an office by flipping his bed sideways and laying a shelf atop the legs to form a stand-up desk. He stores his inflatable mattress and blankets in the space behind it. Classical music plays softly on his small radio. He uses the office to peruse catalogues and clip out things that interest him. “I’m down with calendars, magazines, books, I’m always rehabilitating myself.”

Asked about his neatness, Kelly replied, “Oh yeah, that’s my Mom, she was strict.” He is 40, but with a bandanna covering his bald head could pass for someone in his early 20s. In season, Kelly workers at local farmers’ market, where he gets much of the produce he exclusively eats. Mondloch accommodates his vegan, raw food diet.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “The staff is real cool.”

“IF YOU FIND A DRY STICK, water it every day until bears fruit,” said Martin, quoting the Monastic Desert Fathers. “That’s really the concept we adopt here. That day in and day out engagement.”

She said her time at Mondloch has taught her “to allow people room and space to self-determine, to celebrate someone brushing his teeth or taking a shower, [that] change can be incremental and yet profound at the same time, and that a strong and vibrant community can be created here at Mondloch. We had a resident who is 100 years old who celebrated her one hundredth birthday here.”