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Counting the Homeless

… And making the homeless count.

— Alexandria is often described as an affluent community. One recent report pegged the median income at $102,000, not the highest in the area, but not low. Meanwhile, despite the housing slowdown, a home remains out of reach for many faced with stagnant wages or an income that keeps going down.

But the housing problem is much bigger than that. We have residents with disabilities living on less than $5,000 a year. Someone on Social Security disability might get $700 a month. Many of the elderly, particularly the women, who may have lived in this city most of their lives, earned small incomes during their working years, or their jobs might not have qualified for Social Security at all. All of these are residents of Alexandria too. They live with families if they have them, or double up, or if they are lucky live in group homes, subsidized housing or transitional housing. Then there are the homeless.

They are often not visible and only come to public attention when they are recognized on King Street or Mount Vernon Avenue or near a Metro, a business, a church. We know how many there are and very often who they are. We have a whole group of people dedicated to bringing them out of the cold and into permanent housing and a life like everyone else's. What we don't have is a blueprint of how to do it permanently, when the unemployment rate is high, the minimum wage is nowhere near a living wage, some are too disabled to work full time or work at all, and society does not recognize the depth of the problem.

"We need really low income housing," said Bill Rooney, comprehensive recovery team supervisor for the Community Services Board and one of those who deals with the problem of the homeless. But until such housing is available, "There is a plethora of services for people who are street. homeless There is no reason people should live outside, " Rooney said.

Those services include the Alexandria Shelter, Carpenter's Shelter, a shelter for victims of domestic violence and three emergency shelters. They handle both families and single people. In addition there is the winter shelter which is open from December 1 to April 1. "There is room for every person. We always accept people and have places," said Rooney who noted that might mean they will take people to places in other jurisdictions. There is also transitional housing and programs such as Safe Haven, which is permanent housing for homeless who have a mental illness.

There are meal programs and outreach centers. But the homeless remain. As does the question, how to get them housed.

Once a year jurisdictions throughout the Washington metropolitan area conduct a count of the homeless, those who are on the street and those in shelters. They try to figure out who they are; men, women, single, families, children, employed or unemployed, mentally ill or dealing with substance abuse. It's called the point in time count and this year it will take place on Jan. 25.

Last year, Alexandria decided to do the count differently. Directed by Michelle Albert, the city's new homeless outreach and PATH coordinator, the city increased the number of volunteers doing the count, broadened the search area and began their check at 4 a.m. in the morning rather than 9 a.m. The result was that the numbers were larger than they had been the previous year and the percentage of homeless in Alexandria higher than our neighbors. To verify those higher number , a second count was done in July. It is Albert's job to provide outreach to the homeless and connect them with services. Knowing who they are is part of the job as is the emphasis on finding the homeless who are seriously mentally ill.

Albert thought it was significant that 44 percent of the homeless reported chronic substance abuse, 21 percent serious mental illness such as bi polar disorder or schizophrenia while 27 percent reported they were dually diagnosed. While none described themselves as having an intellectual disability, one or two experienced brain injury.

During the point in time count done in January of 2011, 42 unsheltered adults were counted (those actually on the streets) while 60 were counted in July. In January, three were women, in July, nine. Thirty five of those counted in January were considered chronically homeless while 49 of those counted in July were. According to HUD, a chronically homeless individual is a person with a disabling condition who has either been continually homeless for one year or more or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years. More disturbing were the facts that in January of 2011, 22 families were in an emergency shelter, 21 in July. In January that included 35 children. Another 30 families including 59 children were in transitional housing programs in January, 2011, housing that generally lasts up to 24 months and then the family is expected to move on. By HUD standards they are also considered homeless which means that last year 94 children in Alexandria did not have a permanent place to call home.

Alexandria is far from ending homelessness, but there are definitely services available for those who have no place to go. So why do some remain on the streets? Both Rooney and Albert said it is a long process convincing people to accept help. "Many individuals are not interested in participating in a program. They have too many rules or too many restrictions" said Albert "That doesn't mean we don't continue to attempt an intervention," said Rooney.

"It's taken years to engage someone, in one case, almost 20 years," said Albert, "It's very difficult to respect a person's choice." But they do. Not just Rooney and Albert but all those working on the problem, employees of the Community Services Board, the police, social workers, Ann Moore, director of the office of Community Services, those who work at the shelters, the soup kitchens, all the volunteers.

So why don't the police just round the homeless up and insist they take shelter? There are residents who ask that, some out of concern, some out of frustration. But the answer is simple. Homelessness is not a crime.

"They certainly can call the police, said Captain Scott Ogden of the Alexandria police. "We are one agency that is around 24-7. We are the first step." Ogden noted that the police work with other agencies throughout the city, that the homeless are discussed at roll call and that the police work to intervene and "offer all kinds of assistance." He recommends that if the situation is an emergency, people should call 911. Otherwise the non-emergency number is 703-838-4444.

"There are no vagrancy laws. And it is not against the law to be homeless, " he said. The police get calls regularly, particularly from the King Street area as well as Mount Vernon Avenue. He said that the police can ask someone to move if they are loitering in front of a business, they can offer information about shelters and other programs but if they refuse help and are not a threat to themselves or other people, they are free to go.

Jail is not the answer for a social problem. So the police keep on trying, one person at a time, one day at a time just as the social workers and counselors working for the Community Services Board and the Department of Community and Human Services do.

The public can help too. If residents have questions on how they can help or if a civic association or any other group wants to learn more about the homeless, Albert asks that you contact her. "I understand people want to help," she said. She has offered to talk with anyone who wants to know what can be done and added that she has information cards to distribute that tell people where the shelters are, the meal programs and other services. The best way to reach her is by email Michelle.Albert@alexandriava.gov.