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A Community that Cared

August 25, 2009

Author: Angela Jones Hackley

“Who is Kate Hanley? …I don’t know, but she must have been a part of a community that cared…,” reads the placard in the brightly colored entrance of the Kate Hanley Shelter, the newest shelter for homeless families in Fairfax County, VA.

This quote was the first thing that caught my eye during my recent site visit with the newly formed Fairfax-Falls Church Partnership to Prevent and End Homelessness. Nested in a middle- to upper-income neighborhood near the government center in Fairfax County, the Kate Hanley Shelter is an example of how a community that cares has come together around the issue of homelessness.

What does a community that cares look like? For me, it is a community that takes a seemingly intractable issue like homelessness and sets a goal of ending it. It is a community that affirms that all of our neighbors deserve to have a place of their own to rest their heads at night. It is a community that works on the solution as a unified whole, not looking to someone else or just one sector–public, private, or faith — for all of the answers.

The goal of the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Partnership is to end homelessness in 10 years, by 2018, and they are already over a year into their new strategy. This is a bold statement, given the rising numbers of people who are finding themselves homeless in this recession. But they are intent on no longer “managing homelessness but working to end it.”

Now, if you have worked in the social services arena as long as I have, you might be thinking…. here we go again, yet another new plan. Will it really change anything? But the longer I listened to Partnership board members, nonprofit partners, county officials and others on the site visit, the more I realized that they were serious. Their approach, called “Housing First,” differs from the traditional homelessness services model in that it assumes that “everyone is born to live in a house.” The goal is not to get folks into a shelter first, case-manage them to death on all of their identified issues, and then deem them ready and fit to live in a house. Housing First works to get people into a permanent, stable housing setting and then connects individuals or families to needed services. Ultimately, the group wants to help a homeless family avert the County shelter system altogether.

This is not to say that Fairfax County and the Community Partnership have everything figured out. The road ahead certainly will be paved with challenges. The Kate Hanley Shelter is almost always at its capacity– 62 people, roughly 20 families. The waiting list hovers between 60-80 people. In May of this year, the County’s Department of Housing and Community Development had a list of 978 persons listed as homeless and still in need; over the course of the year, close to 2,000 people are reported to be homeless or precariously housed in Fairfax County. Right now, there are individuals and families who are living in motels in Fairfax County, and some that are simply not being served at all.

You might think that the problem in Fairfax County is small when compared to other places in the Washington region. After all, the county includes some of the area’s wealthiest neighborhoods. But a recent study shows that Fairfax County has the second largest homeless population in the region, totaling more than 1,700 people. (The District of Columbia is first with approximately 6,200 people and Montgomery County, MD is third with 1,200.) Without a doubt, homelessness is an issue that touches the entire Washington region and the number of people who are without a place to live is on the rise.

So, while there are many jurisdictions striving mightily to manage homelessness, there is only one that has created a strategy to end it. My hat goes off to the Fairfax-County Community Partnership being bold and for caring. I believe I am a part of an organization, a community, and a region that cares. Are you a part of that community? Don’t you want to be?

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