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Surviving Winter

Hypothermia shelter opens on Dec. 1.

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A volunteer prepares bagged lunches during last year’s hypothermia shelter operation.

Local residents with the leadership of Reston Interfaith and Fairfax County are preparing for hypothermia season.

The hypothermia shelter in Reston will open its doors on Dec. 1, hoping to build on last year’s success when from Jan. 1 to March 31 the shelter served more than 120 people. Countywide, hypothermia shelters served 535 people December through March last winter — shelters outside of Reston opened on Dec. 1, not Jan. 1. Seven civic organizations, six businesses and 70 faith groups provided about 2,300 volunteers to operate the shelters. The effort resulted in more than 10,000 bed nights in a warm place for the county’s homeless population, numbering about 2,000. While the county and Reston Interfaith coordinated the efforts in Reston last winter, it was the volunteers that made the shelter’s operations possible.

"I kind of took a gamble last year and signed up on behalf of our church," said Marilyn Silvey, member of Reston’s United Christian Parish, about requesting volunteers from her congregation for the hypothermia shelter. "I thought I’d get a good response, but I didn’t think I’d get as enthusiastic of a response." Silvey said about 50 volunteers from her church were available on a regular basis for the hypothermia shelter. The volunteers provided dinner, breakfast and a bagged lunch. Some of them would spend the night in the shelter and get to meet some of its clients. In Reston, at the multipurpose room of the North County Human Services Building, about 30 people would spend the night.

The county has made the same space available for this year’s hypothermia shelter. Patti Stevens, the county’s regional director for human services, said the community feedback from last year’s hypothermia shelter was "very positive." Stevens said the room is used throughout the day for a number of senior activities such as the pottery ceramics group. "It is being very fully used," said Stevens. "The space will continue to be used during daytime," she said.

AS FOR THE VOLUNTEERS, Silvey said they got something out of last year’s hypothermia shelter effort, too. "It was good for us. It put a face on homelessness for us," said Silvey. "It was good for our education and for what we are put on this earth to do, and that is to help others." She said volunteers struck up relationships with some of the shelter’s clients, getting to the point where they worried whether they would get to see the clients the next time they volunteer.

Silvey also said that the volunteering experience "destroyed stereotypes" about homeless people. "We met people who were employed and had to be awakened by 4:30 a.m. to get to Maryland to go to work," said Silvey. "We expect to see some of the same faces this year, which is very sad." The experience has also sparked political activism from the volunteers. "As a congregation we will be following more what the county supervisors are doing to end homelessness," said Silvey.

Silvey hopes there will be a similar response from the community in terms of the number of people and enthusiasm shown for volunteering. However, she said, there is a possibility that the response was so good last year because it was the first year for the shelter. "I have no reason to believe it [the response] won’t be" the same, said Silvey, "but there is a danger of it becoming routine."

According to Amanda Andere, Reston Interfaith’s vice president for external affairs and community resources, the response has not been the same as last year so far. She believes this may be because of the busy holiday season. Those who wish to serve as volunteers at the hypothermia shelter should attend two-hour workshops. The volunteering workshops will be held on Thursdays, Nov. 29 and Dec. 6, from 6 to 8 p.m. and Saturday, Dec. 1, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.

To learn more about homelessness in Fairfax County, visit http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/homeless.