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Providence Still Wants To Help

Following Lamb Center decision, Providence District Council discusses homelessness.

After the Merrifield Citizens Association recently succeeded in preventing the Lamb Center, a homeless day shelter, from moving from the City of Fairfax into their neighborhood, the Providence District Council leadership decided it was time to have a more subdued discussion about the problem of homelessness in Fairfax County.

"I feel that everybody had mixed emotions on some level," Charlie Hall, the council's chairman, said of the recent contest of wills. "We wanted to have everybody take a step back and look at what the problem is that we're facing."

Accordingly, at Tuesday's meeting of the Providence District Council, an umbrella group of homeowners' associations, representatives of the county and Reston Interfaith were invited to speak on local homelessness and what is being done to alleviate the problem.

Merni Fitzgerald, director of the county's Office of Public Affairs, discussed the county's goal, set last year, to end homelessness within its borders in the next 10 years. "That's our new goal — not to manage it, but to end it," she said.

THE GOAL OF ending homelessness in 10 years had come after county officials had been distraught to find, last January, that the number of homeless people had risen since the year before, albeit slightly, said Fitzgerald.

More than 2,000 people are homeless in Fairfax County, including the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church, she told the crowd. Of the homeless population, about 45 percent are single, and about 55 percent are families with children. "There are a number of reasons people are homeless," said Fitzgerald. Two, however were clear: 87 percent of the county's single homeless people have a serious mental illness, a substance abuse problem or both, she said. Of the families with children, 60 percent have income levels at or below the poverty line, and 35 percent are between the poverty line and the median income.

The county has come up with four main strategies for addressing the causes of homelessness, she said. "These are the ways we think we can actually end this." One is to prevent homelessness due to lack of income. This would include such measures as longer-term financial assistance, easier access to information and referral to programs, and the redistribution of public and private resources, said Fitzgerald.

Affordable housing is another part of the county's plan. This means dedicated funding to subsidize permanent and supportable affordable housing, she said, adding that priority for access to such housing should be given to those with very low incomes — "those who don't have any choice." She said different housing options should be available, including single-room occupancy dwellings, and the faith community should be allowed to help with the process. Services to help those in need obtain and maintain housing should be provided. "Housing is the key," said Fitzgerald.

Another part of the county's plan is to integrate mental and addiction services into its homeless assistance programs. And finally, she said, a management system should be created to hold the programs together and insure accountability.

HAVING COME UP with these strategies, said Fitzgerald, the county is now working on a long-term plan to implement them. There is "no reason" to think the problem cannot be solved, she said. "We have the talent, the resources and the people to do it."

Michelle Milgrim, assistant director of Patient Care Services for the county's Health Department, discussed a pilot program for respite care in the Embry Rucker Community Shelter in Reston. Until recently, she said, the Health Department had provided a nurse practitioner for limited hours at the county's five shelters. However, she said, "As the program started to grow, there were more needs out there than were being met." A facility providing temporary respite care for "medically fragile" homeless individuals began operating at Embry Rucker last year.

The program was evaluated in October, she said, and the 31 clients the facility had seen to that date were somewhat fewer than had been expected. They had all been recovering from surgery, and their average stay was about 40 days — 10 days longer than the shelter had anticipated. However, she said, the facility had succeeded in meeting its clients needs. "The program, we thought, was very successful," said Milgrim.

The Health Department has also been involved in a Homeless Health Care program that reaches out to the unsheltered homeless through teams in each of the county's four human service regions, she said.

"You may wonder, with all these great things being done, why do we need a Lamb Center?" asked Marte Birnbaum of Reston Interfaith Inc., a nonprofit community service organization that operates throughout northern Fairfax County. Birnbaum is the director at Embry Rucker.

Not all homeless people like to be residents in a shelter, she noted. Staying at a shelter, as opposed to dropping in during the day, means a "complete loss of independence," she said. Residents are subject to curfews, rules and perhaps searches.

"Something I want you to keep in mind is, this is a national problem," said Birnbaum. "It's not a Fairfax problem." Homelessness increased all over the country at around the same time, she said, noting that the biggest reason for the increase was a lack of affordable housing.

"This is a county that, in many ways, is responsive to the problem," she said. Having a doctor at the shelter, for example, has provided a way to establish contact with homeless individuals who would not have come just to see a social worker, she noted.

Embry Rucker is the county's only facility that provides shelter to both the single homeless and families and offers drop-in services. The shelter expanded its services this winter with the opening of a hypothermia shelter.

DURING A QUESTION-and-answer session, Deborah Reyher asked what could and was being done to deal with the 87 percent of single homeless individuals with addiction problems and/or mental illness? "I think they're at the center of a lot of the controversy," she said, referring particularly to Merrifield's reluctance to become home to the Lamb Center.

Birnbaum noted that the county's Community Service Board (CSB) makes treatment available to those who can and will take advantage of it. However, she said, what the board can do is largely limited by what is requested of them by people who merit treatment.

Milgrim also noted that mental illness and addiction treatment was not her area of expertise, but she agree with Birnbaum that "a lot of people are choosing not to come in" for treatment. A Health Department strategy for dealing with this, said Milgrim, has been to have a mental health nurse practitioner and an outreach worker for substance abuse accompanying medical nurse practitioners who work with the homeless, in order to bring them into contact with those who might not otherwise seek their services. "Whenever we look to fix one thing, we realize we have to look at the whole picture," she said.

Ekram Sarper asked how realistic the 10-year goal was and how similar the county's goals and plans were to those of other jurisdictions.

Fitzgerald said the county has been "looking at other plans across the country" and working with the National Alliance to End Homelessness. She also said it often costs less to house people than to provide them with shelters and traditional homeless services. "So it's actually more cost-effective to end homelessness than to manage it," she said.

Flint Webb asked what, if any, relationship existed between homelessness and undocumented immigrants? All three panelists said service providers do not ask their clientele whether they are legal citizens. However, according to county statistics, those in the "language minority" make up only 10 percent of the single homeless and 25 percent of homeless families. However, Birnbaum noted, not knowing the language could be one reason some do not seek services.

Hall asked Birnbaum how Embry Rucker coexists with its business and residential neighbors, as the Lamb Center would have in Merrifield.

"There are not a lot of issues that occur," she said, adding that there is some fear on the part of neighbors. She said she did not think the homeless population, statistically, had any more inclination to violence than any other segment.

Sue Thieler said she had been using the library next door to Embry Rucker for years, adding, "I never even knew it was there." She said she had never heard of any problems arising from the shelter and noted that it had not seemed to scare anyone away, as the Reston Town Center is also located nearby.

Hall said he would like to make the topic of next month's meeting of the Providence District Council "lessons learned from the Lamb Center."