Questions Asked, Few Answers

Questions Asked, Few Answers

Mount Vernon’s Community Dialogue on Homelessness attracts passionate and diverse crowd.

Nearly 100 people gathered at Bethlehem Baptist Church on May 30 for Fairfax County’s first of four Community Dialogues in response to the April 7 Community Summit to End Homelessness. According to a 2006 point in time survey of homelessness,” in Fairfax there are 2,077 homeless people in the county. 934 are single. 1,143 are members of 333 families. 724 are children, all but 25 younger than 18.

Larry Brown was one of the first speakers to address the crowd. Like many in the room that night, he was homeless. New Hope Housing director Pam Michell introduced Brown as a success story, a “graduate of New Hope” who had defeated “the stereotype of a single man who is down and out and some people think he will always be down and out.” But Brown’s description of his life also exemplified the challenges the Planning Committee to End Homelessness faces in its stated vision: “By 2015, every person in Fairfax County has a safe, affordable home.”

Larry Brown grew up in Mount Vernon. His father owned a bar at a time when “there used to be a bar every five foot on the Richmond Highway,” in Brown’s words. “I grew up drinking.” He was also using illegal drugs, and when he reached adulthood he was trapped in a cycle of addiction and prison time. Brown estimated he’d spent 75 percent of his adult life in prison. But in 1993 he beat his addictions. “I quit while I was in the system,” Brown said. “Which is a hard thing to do.” Brown was released from prison three years ago, “And when I got out I had nowhere to go … I’d never been in a predicament where I never had nothing.”

Brown was willing to take advantage of the homeless services available in the county, and spent four or five months in the Kennedy shelter. But he chafed to get out of the communal environment. “I wanted my own place,” he said. “That was my number one goal.”

Brown worked a succession of jobs, and finally moved into his own home with the help of Good Shepherd Housing. But he will have to move out of that home in December, and he doubts he can afford to pay unsubsidized rents on a solo apartment. As a roofer, Brown said, “I make fair money, but I don’t make really good money yet.”

Brown said he has three goals right now, “a house, a new car and a motorcycle.” He has already accomplished the three goals he set himself upon leaving prison: to have his own place, be economically self-sufficient and earn more than $15 an hour, though he had to tweak that list a bit, “I had the motorcycle on there,” he explained, “[now] that’s more of a long-term goal.” Brown said he’s been encouraged to leave his home county and move to North Carolina, where he’s been told houses are cheaper. But he is on parole until 2008, and the paperwork required for a move is a disincentive.

WHEN ASKED what had changed to allow him to break the cycle of drug addiction and alcoholism, and imprisonment as the only alternative to homelessness, Brown said, “Me. I have faced reality more than I did before. I care whether I live or die.” This statement is an insight into one of the challenges faced by the people who gathered to help end homelessness. How does a community save someone who does not want to be saved?

The causes of homelessness are complex, many of them are structural, such as high housing costs, but others cannot be solved with simple economics. According to the 2006 survey 87 percent of single homeless people in Fairfax are seriously mentally ill and/or substance abusers. However, only four percent of the members of Fairfax's homeless families fall into that category. Many at the dialogue pointed out these differences, but few voiced solutions.

The myriad voices, including county officials like Supervisor Gerry Hyland and police captain Michael Kline, non-profit directors, social workers, government employees, members of faith communities, business owners and homeless people, spoke to the subtleties of the homeless problem, and the impossibility of solving it in a monolithic way. Much of the meeting was spent in two sub-groups, housing and prevention.

IN THE PREVENTION subgroup, facilitated by Community Council on Homelessness chairman Linda Wimpey, people discussed the challenges faced by individuals in society and in the county’s care system. Cheri Zeman, director of United Community Ministries cited the large number of non-English speakers in the area. Mattie Palmore, Good Shepherd’s Director of Homelessness Transition, brought up people unwillingness to seek help until the last minute. “If you are about to be homeless, it’s a very humbling experience. And a lot of people wait until the eleventh hour. [Help] is not going to happen overnight.

Susan Samuels, a social worker at Emberly Rucker Community shelter in Reston said the county’s window of only 30 to 45 days to provide services forced many clients to take the first job available, probably a minimum wage job with a salary unsustainable in Fairfax, meaning the person would soon be back at another shelter.

Some of the people in this group seemed frustrated by the outsiders-looking-in perspective that was prevalent at the meeting. Several stood and articulated the complexity, desperation and inescapability of homelessness, particularly for working mothers. “When you get laid off everything hits at one time,” said Cassie Gainey, “and you go straight to the ground.” She said she was frustrated by what she saw as the group’s avoidance of the problems at the root of homelessness, “You don’t want to hear it and you got to hear it,” she said repeatedly.

But the discussion of the causes of homelessness finally had to be cut off, to the displeasure of some, in order to begin a discussion of solutions. But in light of the raised and unraised problems, the solutions were not wholly convincing. The five solutions the group listed were: for the community to be a “serious partner,” grants to allow faith-based groups to take on small numbers of clients, separate solutions for chronic and temporary homelessness, change in the shelter time-frame and job training and long term support.

THE DISCUSSION of housing was led by Michael Milliner, of Building Partnership, a for-profit company that specializes in affordable housing, and Herb Cooper-Levy, with the non-profit affordable housing builder RPJ Housing.

Cooper-Levy emphasized public advocacy to sway government leaders, “It’s not okay that this resource – this valuable, rare resource – publicly owned land, gets used for parks … We want roofs. We want heating systems. We want plumbing,” Cooper-Levy said.

When asked why governments zoned land to make it difficult to build affordable housing, Cooper-Levy said it was a matter of whose voice was loudest at planning committees and Board of Supervisor meetings. “It’s the number of people that show up and what they ask for. We’ve got to get better at showing up,” he said.

When Laura Derby called for thinking “outside the box” on the homelessness problem, Cooper-Levy suggested “Instead of thinking outside the box we need to set it down here [he mimicked stepping on top of a box] and say ‘We need funding’ … The next time I go to a public hearing, I want you all there.”

Milliner also stressed the need for public advocacy, particularly at the community input meetings that precede county approval of developers’ plans. He said most development deals have a 45-day window, and if there is no “ready-to-mobilize” community base, a few loud voices in opposition to affordable housing can puncture plans to invest millions.

But Milliner also said that people should “take the moral responsibility out of it.” There are sound economic reasons for developers to build affordable housing and for counties to encourage it, because it is ultimately cheaper than keeping people in shelters.

The Housing group presented these themes to the larger meeting: zoning issues that discouraged affordable housing, lack of citizen involvement and the need for creative solutions and direct involvement by elected officials.

THE MULTITUDE of voices and the enthusiasm to combat homelessness excited many of the events’ attendees and organizers. They passed an email list so that those involved could mobilize together, continue the dialogue and transform it into action. But as the list went around, one participant spoke out angrily, “It’s hard to be on [the email list] when you’re homeless.”

Michell, who was leading the group, had no ready answer. She acknowledged “the need for us to stop and make sure the homeless have a voice” at the planning level of the region’s effort to end homelessness.

The meeting offered a chance for many of the area’s non-profits to talk to one another about the common goals they were combating. The Rev. Keary Kincannon of Rising Hope Methodist Mission Church, took a break from chatting with an employee of another non-profit to say he was encouraged by the meeting. “It all comes down to ‘How do we create the political will?’ not just the politicians but the political will within the community … and I think something like this is a big step.” Kincannon added that the effort needed a “vision,” of “what Martin Luther King called ‘the beloved community.’”