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Votes

Alarm Over Fire Code at Shelters

Fairfax County officials respond to concerns about fire code violations at local shelters.

Details

*During the 2010-2011 winter season, approximately 1,025 residents sought shelter through Fairfax County’s Hypothermia Prevention Program, in partnership with other agencies.

*During the 2011-2012 winter season, partners opened their shelters to "no turn-away" status on Nov. 1, even if the weather was not at freezing temperatures.

*FACETS’ Hypothermia Prevention Season is Nov. 21 through March 17. FACETS served more than 219 clients last season.

*Volunteers of America Chesapeake (VOA) Baileys Crossroad’s Hypothermia Program served more than 442 clients last season and an additional 84 clients in their other winter seasonal programs for a total of 526 clients.

*Reston Interfaith’s Embry Rucker Community Shelter (ERCS) operates three separate winter programs. The ERCS Winter North County Program and winter seasonal programs served over 298 clients last season.

*The Homeless Healthcare Program (HHP) has four nurse practitioners from the Fairfax County Health Department providing free flu shots during Hypothermia Prevention season.

For more information on Fairfax County’s Hypothermia Prevention Program, go to http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/homeless/partnerupdate/partnership-highlights-hyposeason2011-12.htm

Spring fever hit the region early this year. Last week’s record-high temperatures had residents flocking outdoors to play, bike, jog and picnic.

With the promise of more summery weather this weekend, it may seem like an odd time to be concerned about freezing temperatures and hypothermia.

But on Friday, April 13, Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D-At-large) sent an email to leaders in the faith community inviting them to a hypothermia prevention information session on Sunday, April 22.

According to county officials, the session is an attempt to quell concerns and rumors raised by some church leaders that the County’s Fire Marshal will shut down their hypothermia programs next winter because of fire code violations.

On Tuesday, county officials stressed their longstanding support of Fairfax County’s Hypothermia Prevention Program, and promised to work with each house of worship to address concerns about code violations.

"I have been working with County staff to make sure safety concerns that arose during this program year are addressed before the 2012-2013 program begins," Bulova said in the email announcing Sunday’s session. "I am committed to finding solutions that do not put undue burden on houses of worship but still provide adequate safety for the vulnerable population that relies on the Hypothermia Program during the winter months."

On Monday, April 16, the Rev. Keary Kincannon of Rising Hope Mission Church in Alexandria sent out a press release stating the county will close 18 of 36 churches that host a hypothermia program. "Nine churches will not be allowed to bring the homeless in from the cold under any circumstances. An additional nine require extensive work to correct code violations that may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars," Kincannon said in the release.

Bulova said that currently four houses of worship may be affected by their inability to comply with fire codes, not 18.

"We’ll find out at the meeting on the 22nd exactly what is being suggested and what kind of costs it would/could entail. The county’s fire marshal is concerned that — even with the best of intentions — space where the homeless are sleeping shouldn’t be a place where they are trapped and unable to exit in case of a fire," Bulova said.

More than 1,000 residents seek shelter through Fairfax County’s Hypothermia Prevention Program each year. Last year, there were no hypothermia-related deaths reported during the season.

"The Hypothermia Program is unique," Bulova said. "It is a true partnership between the faith communities in Fairfax County and county government."

She said that many of the county’s churches, synagogues, mosques and temples take turns providing space to provide food and shelter for the homeless population during the winter months.

"County agencies such as the Community Services Board, the Police Department, and the Office to Prevent and End Homelessness partner to make the program successful," Bulova said.

"Our shared goal is to prevent deaths, and people who are homeless deserve both shelter from the elements and a safe place to stay. Fire and building codes don’t discriminate, and they are intended to protect everyone," said county spokesperson Merni Fitzgerald.

Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock) said other localities, such as Richmond and Virginia Beach, have encountered the similar issues because the fire code is a state-wide set of regulations enacted by the General Assembly but enforced by local jurisdictions.

"The hypothermia program is one of the really good things we have in the county, both because it helps those in need and it’s a great example of businesses, non-profits and the faith community working together," Cook said.

"We are deeply grateful to the faith community and nonprofits that partner with us in the fight against homelessness. They have given their own time, facilities and resources during the past seven years, preventing deaths from hypothermia, providing case management to hundreds of clients, and moving individuals into permanent housing," Fitzgerald said.