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New Center Stirs Up Controversy

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U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10) attends a groundbreaking ceremony for the Center of Hope in Ashburn Oct. 22.

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A circle of prayer was part of the groundbreaking ceremony.

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Board members of the Good Shepherd Alliance, local dignitaries and representatives from Toll Brothers break ground as part of a traditional groundbreaking ceremony for a new location for the Center of Hope in Ashburn.

Members of the Good Shepherd Alliance held a symbolic groundbreaking ceremony for its new Center of Hope in Ashburn Oct. 22 and churned up more than a few shovels full of dirt.

Several residents have launched an aggressive campaign against the center, specifically plans for a drop-in center, in their neighborhood. Supporters of GSA, have also taken to the Internet with a petition in favor of the facility.

As a result of the controversy, a community meeting has been scheduled for Thursday, where GSA board members and county officials can clear up misunderstandings about the facility and hopefully announce a solution, which would put the services provided by the drop-in center in the hands of the county.

"Hopefully residents will come with open ears and open hearts and this will clear up some misconceptions," Lyle Werner, executive director of GSA, said.

THE ALLIANCE purchased the 7,000-square-foot building on Ashburn Road and in June announced plans to remodel the facility, which would serve as its executive offices, thrift shop and provide a drop-in center. The nonprofit currently rents space in Leesburg for its office, which doubles as a drop-in center and space in Sterling for the thrift store.

Werner said rent increases at both its other locations forced the alliance to seek something of its own and after an extensive real estate search, the organization settled on the Ashburn property.

GSA is in the process of gutting the inside of the building and anticipates having the Center of Hope up and running sometime in February or March.

It was the possibility of housing a drop-in center, however, that sent some residents to their computers demanding answers from elected officials as to how such a thing could set up shop in their neighborhood.

Werner said a drop-in center provides a place for homeless people, typically men since there are no county facilities available to that segment of the population, to come take a shower, cook a meal, do laundry and store their personnel belongings. It does not serve as a social center or an overnight shelter.

GSA's Leesburg headquarters, located in an old house, offers those services now. Werner said any person wanting to use the services undergoes a background check and while the person may be homeless, most have jobs. They could be sleeping in their cars or staying on someone's couch, she said.

"The people who use the center are very nice. They will even offer to help the staff, take out the trash," Werner said. "They come in to get a shower, get something to eat, to do some laundry. They're there a couple hours at the most."

BASED ON the e-mails flying through cyberspace, not everyone is convinced the drop-in center is the best fit for Ashburn Village.

"We believe the approval of and true intent of this facility has been deliberately kept under the radar so as to push it through without communicating the facility’s purpose with Ashburn residents. We believe the center, our representatives and Toll Brothers has purposefully not engaged in any significant community outreach about this facility," wrote Jeffrey Lupisella, an Ashburn Village resident, in one e-mail.

"I still do not think Ashburn is the right location for a center of this sort. We do not have a homeless issue here and it just doesn't make sense (to me) to actually cart in those individuals to our community. However, perhaps we can support GSA in trying to offer some valuable solutions such as another, more conducive site for this center," wrote Shannon Nalley in another.

Others accuse the GSA of failing to seek community input and of trying to "hide" the purpose of the center.

"We've been transparent," counters Werner.

Supervisor Lori Waters (R-Broad Run) also questions how much outreach Good Shepherd did given the sudden controversy. She said she plans to discuss, at the Nov. 20 Board of Supervisors meeting, a plan she is working on with county staff to make civic organizations accountable for the funds they seek from the county.

"There was no public hearing at the Planning Commission or Supervisors level for this facility," Waters said. "I'm disappointed Good Shepherd Alliance didn’t follow up with the HOAs [homeowner associations] contacts they were given and do community outreach."

But, Werner said, GSA is not deaf to neighbors' concerns. Werner said alliance officials have been working with Waters to develop a plan that would have the county take responsibility for the services provided by the drop-in center at another location.

"GSA told me they will be eliminating the drop-in center component from their center. But there is still a human need," Waters said. "I'm working with county staff to develop a plan to present at the Nov. 20 meeting to run a drop-in center and keeping it in the area of Leesburg. It would be a county facility."

Any county facility, said Waters, would require approval from the Board of Supervisors.