In February, 2007, 59-year-old Robert Bruce Miller was found dead outdoors in Chantilly. Miller was homeless, known to businesses and residents in the area. He died of hypothermia, exposure to the cold.
Since that time, houses of worship and non-profit organizations have stepped into the gap, providing shelter from the storm on a "no-turn-away" basis from November to March.
In Fairfax County, about 35 houses of worship provide shelter to approximately 1,000 homeless men and women during the winter months. Each year, various churches, synagogues, mosques and temples take turns providing space to provide food and shelter for the homeless population during the winter months. Last year, there were no hypothermia-related deaths reported. Similar programs operate in Arlington and Alexandria.
An alarm went up over the past month as some churches that have been providing hypothermia shelter heard that they could be barred from providing the service due to fire-code violations. While some faith leaders said they had heard as many as 18 would be unable to reopen, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova said that just four might have insurmountable fire code violations for serving as emergency shelters. Obviously no one wants to put both church volunteers and those seeking shelter at risk.
"Fairfax County has a unique partnership with our faith communities and non-profits. We are committed to serving the homeless population in a way that is compassionate and ensures their safety," Bulova said.
It's important to recognize that providing shelter from life-threatening conditions is in fact a government function. Faith-based organizations and nonprofits are stepping in on this issue and many others to provide leadership, inspiration and services, saving local governments enormous sums of money.
The county should consider if it might be appropriate for firehouses with capacity might be open in rotation as hypothermia shelters, staffed with church volunteers, if some churches cannot make the changes needed by fire code regulations.
More important is to recognize the need for hypothermia shelters as an indicator that we have not ended homelessness. Providing housing first to people who need a variety of services saves money and makes the most effective use of scarce resources.
Amanda Andere, head of FACETS, Catherine Hudgins, member of the Board of Supervisors, and others reminded the group concerned about the shelters that the real issue is housing.
"Shelter is a temporary solution. We need housing," Andere said.
It is telling that many services are provided to the homeless men and women who come to the hypothermia shelters.
Housing advocates continue to press for more affordable housing. It's a goal that is urgent to keep in mind as Fairfax County looks at what is likely to be its last massive growth in development, the increased density and building around the county's coming Metrorail stations.