By Pam Michell
“Homelessness is like a deep hole you can’t climb out of. Drinking makes the day go by. Once you’re caught in that rut, it’s hard to get out,” George says.
“‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head’ and ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ – yeah, right. You live outside and tell me you love raindrops,” Mary says.
George and Mary spent many years homeless and unsheltered in our community, one of the wealthiest in the country. But in our community, homeless persons such as George and Mary are generally hidden. They live in the woods, behind dumpsters, and in shopping centers. Out of sight, out of mind.
From December through March, persons like George and Mary have the opportunity to have a temporary roof over their heads at the Falls Church Homeless Shelter, operated by the community-based, all-volunteer Friends of Falls Church Homeless Shelter in partnership with New Hope Housing. New Hope Housing provides professional onsite staffing side by side with Friends’ volunteers (more than 200 each winter) and offers year-round case management to shelter residents.
Our experience shows that when given the stability of housing and the support of professionals and volunteers, homeless adults – including those who have lived many years on the streets and in the woods – can and do change and become stable, contributing members of our community.
In January 2012, 697 single adults were counted as homeless in the Fairfax County-Falls Church community and 51 percent of them (353) were chronically homeless – persons who have 12 consecutive months or four separate incidences of homelessness in the past three years and have disabling conditions. Twenty-four percent of homeless adults were unsheltered. These numbers are going up. And the community is responding.
As part of a nationwide effort to put a name and a face to each number and find solutions, the Fairfax-Falls Church community is participating in a national campaign – 100,000 Homes – that will help us understand who is homeless, why they are homeless and how we can get them housed.
The homeless men and women who are identified as chronically homeless have an opportunity to get off the streets and housed through the 100,000 Homes campaign. The 100,000 Homes campaign is a national program that has been extremely successful in communities such as Los Angeles, Kansas City, and Arlington. Now, five local non-profits – New Hope Housing, Volunteers of America Chesapeake, FACETS, Reston Interfaith, and Pathways Homes, all addressing the needs of persons who are homeless in our community – are working in partnership with Fairfax County to bring the 100,000 Homes to our community. The uniqueness of this program is that chronically homeless persons do not have to be stable to go into their own home. The basic premise is that motivation to get healthy will come after the individual has a home and he or she will work to stay healthy because of stable surroundings. Wraparound services will be offered to assist these now formerly homeless persons to maintain stability in the community. The goal for the Fairfax-Falls Church community is to house 150 chronically homeless men and women over a three-year period.
Volunteers are needed for this exciting new opportunity to serve those most at risk.
“In my daily life, I don’t come into contact with people who are unfortunate to not have a place to live and sleep. So for me working a few hours at the winter shelter helps me remember how fortunate I am to have all I do,” Jerry says.
“I continue to serve because it’s the best way I know how to personally help bring about meaningful change in the lives of the men and women in our community who find themselves displaced from a permanent home,” Chris says.
Jerry and Chris are among the hundreds of Friends of Falls Church Homeless Shelter volunteers whose own lives have been changed by reaching out to men and women whom others have given up on, whom others have discarded as “hopeless.”
This month you too can reach out to those on the streets in Falls Church and listen to their stories. The initial assessment, called the Vulnerability Index, will be completed by volunteers with the homeless men and women residing outside in campsites between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. on Feb. 25, 26, and 27. Volunteers of America Chesapeake will be leading this effort in the Falls Church area.
Learn what more you can do to help provide them the housing they need. Join us as a part of volunteer teams visiting campsites to interview homeless men and women. On March 4, we will give a detailed report to the community about who we found and where we go from here. See fairfaxcounty.gov/homeless/100khomes for details. Help us help everyone in the Fairfax County-Falls Church community find a way home.
Pam Michell is the executive director of New Hope Housing. Tom Nichols, executive program director of Volunteers of America Chesapeake’s Bailey’s Crossroads Community Shelter, contributed to this commentary.