Community Convenes Homelessness Summit
Anne is a former school teacher with a master’s degree. She is bipolar. She is also homeless.
Bill is a Vietnam veteran and a recovering alcoholic. He’s living in the woods with his bags of medicine, battling hepatitis, post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoid schizophrenia.
These are two faces of homelessness that community leaders are trying to find solutions for as Fairfax County develops a 10-year plan to end homelessness. According to the latest data, more than 2,000 people in Fairfax County are homeless, of which more than 700 are children.
The Board of Supervisors convened a Community Summit to End Homelessness on April 7 at Freddie Mac’s corporate headquarters in McLean. More than 300 participants from the county and the country discussed the multi-layered issue, which includes affordable housing, health care, wages, language and jobs. Conversations from the summit will help develop the 10-year plan to end homelessness that the Community Council on Homelessness is preparing for the Board of Supervisors to adopt later this year. The 10-year plan is part of a national effort that more than 200 communities are participating in, following guidelines from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In his opening remarks, Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly reflected on a recent visit to a hypothermia shelter, where he met Anne and Bill. “What struck many volunteers was the humanity of homeless people – that in sharing a meal, a quiet game or a late night conversation, we could no longer think of them as ‘the homeless’ but rather, as individuals with hopes and demons,” Connolly said. “As the guests at the hypothermia shelter venue so often reminded me, ‘they are homeless, not hopeless’ and their hope is synchronized with ours – to make homelessness a thing of the past.” (Read text of remarks)
Connolly emphasized that government alone cannot solve this problem. “A real solution will require enormous creativity and innovative thinking,” he said.
“There are many reasons why people end up on the streets,” said Eugene McQuade, president of Freddie Mac. “All they want is a room of their own with the hope and dignity that come with it.” (Read text of remarks)
One of the most pressing challenges is providing affordable housing. In Fairfax County, an individual must earn $22.25/hour, or $46,280 annually, to afford an average-priced rental unit. Though the county has preserved nearly 900 affordable housing units in two years, the homeless still struggle
To help frame the issue with new ideas, representatives from Chicago, San Francisco, New York City and Columbus, Ohio, presented strategies and stories to help Fairfax County. In addition to those perspectives, two national speakers delivered remarks: Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and Bart Harvey, chairman and CEO of Enterprise Community Partners. The summit highlighted the cost of homelessness. Nationally, the average cost of placing the children of a homeless family in foster care is more than $47,000, while the average annual cost for a permanent housing subsidy and supportive services for a family of equal size is $9,000.
“The cost of not doing anything is prohibitive on your medical, health, shelter, foster care and other systems, let alone the human cost,” Harvey said. (Read text of remarks)
After breakout sessions where participants talked about county solutions, Connolly concluded the day’s events with a call to action. Among the action items are to “set heroic goals” and ask why ending homelessness isn’t achievable in Fairfax, which has a population 1 million and 2,000 homeless; in contrast, San Francisco has a population of 700,000 with 10,000 homeless. He suggested that it’s important to talk about homelessness as a moral issue and as an economic issue. Finally, the county community needs a plan that is outcome-oriented, saves money for taxpayers, is housing-focused, includes living wages and does not rely on government alone, but on partnerships with all segments of the community.