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In From The Cold

Faith communities continue effort to prevent hypothermia deaths.

Although it is already March, this week's forecast calls for snow in the local area. Lives of more than 2,000 homeless people in Fairfax County are in danger in such weather.

Jerry Poje, the board president of Fairfax Area Christian Emergency and Transitional Services (FACETS), said it is not hard to imagine someone without shelter might freeze to death in such weather. “It doesn’t take long for someone to succumb to hypothermia,” he said.

For a third straight winter FACETS and the local faith community have teamed up to protect the local homeless population from hypothermia. The Hypothermia Prevention Program will run through March 31.

According to the FACETS Web site, the 2005-06 program served 406 clients, sheltering them in 17 churches — with additional help from eight churches — with help from more than 1,800 volunteers.

This winter also marks the second year that Fairfax County is involved in the hypothermia prevention program in the central part of the county. It provides bus transportation for clients to the shelter, a part-time nurse practitioner, mental health and substance abuse therapists, security and a medical van in case of a medical emergency.

"There is a real need to help the homeless population in the county," said Linda Potts, a volunteer with Vale United Methodist Church in Oakton. Potts volunteered to serve the hypothermia shelter clients during the week the shelter was located at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fairfax.

Potts said many people in Fairfax County live on the streets, and that a good number of them are the working poor. "They have jobs, but are only paid minimum wage so they can't afford to get an apartment," she said. Potts added that some of the homeless have lost jobs and became ill, losing all of their money on medical treatment without medical insurance.

DURING THE WEEK she helped serve food to the shelter's clients, Potts said she met a homeless woman who is a working real estate agent. Her clients did not know she was homeless. "When you work with the homeless people enough you realize they're not much different from you," said Potts. "A large percentage of the population is only two steps away from homelessness." The first step is losing a job and second step is becoming ill.

The shelter operates for 17 weeks, from Dec. 1 to March 31. Churches take week-long turns to host the shelter, which is different from the hypothermia shelters in northern and southern parts of Fairfax County, where the hypothermia shelters are in one central location. The guests are served a hot meal for dinner and entertained at the shelter where they spend the night. They are then served a cold breakfast in the morning, and are packed a bagged lunch for the afternoon.

Vienna resident Helen Paup, a volunteer with Emmanuel Lutheran Church, which hosted the shelter in February, said the guests are treated with much respect. Paup said she was not aware of the scale of homelessness in the county until her daughter got her involved with the hypothermia shelter. "You really don't see [homeless people] in Vienna," said Paup. "You can't even realize who is in this condition. Some of them are dressed as nice as can be," she said.

One of Paup's highlights from the week Emmanuel Lutheran hosted the shelter was seeing the interaction between a homeless man and her five-year-old grandson. She said the homeless man taught her grandson to fold paper airplanes and throw them far.

POJE SAID VOLUNTEER support has been tremendous again this year. He said the overwhelming support is a sign of the community’s understanding of a larger responsibility towards providing services to those in need. Poje said that this year there were too many volunteers who signed up to help provide services for the homeless. “This year we had to turn away volunteers and that’s a tribute to the community,” he said.

Poje said that many of the volunteers he works with are starting the conversation about what to do next to improve services for the homeless. He said Fairfax County is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, yet there are more than 2,000 homeless people in the county. “This is an urgent need, right here in one of the wealthiest counties,” said Poje.

Homelessness, however, is a national trend. Poje said that the issue is where the United States, the world’s super power, needed to prove its superiority. “Some of the guests are veterans, and that is a mark of shame,” he said.