Every night, in the largely unseen parts of Fairfax County, there are hundreds of homeless people sleeping in their makeshift homes: campsites tucked in wooded areas behind shopping centers, homes and business, cars parked in strip mall parking lots, and emergency shelters set up in churches for the winter.
This week, hundreds of volunteers got a closer look at this side of their community, hiking through woods and peering into parked cars in the pre-dawn hours to reach out to the homeless population in an unprecedented way.
The effort, known as Registry Week, was the kickoff of Fairfax County’s participation in the national 100,000 Homes Campaign, a project aimed at getting chronically homeless people into stable housing.
“Even if just helps one person to get a leg up out of that way of life, it will have done its job,” said Kim Richer, a Centreville resident who volunteered for Registry Week.
Volunteers and professional outreach staff from local nonprofits worked in small teams to visit campsites and other known locations where homeless people were sleeping outdoors Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday morning. Their goal was to identify each homeless person residing in the county by name and to collect information about each individual’s needs and medical conditions using a research-based questionnaire.
There are more than 1,500 homeless people in Fairfax County, about 700 of which are single adults, according to a January 2012 point in time survey. About half — 353 people — were idenfied as chronically homeless.
The process provided an emotionally powerful experience for volunteers and led to some breakthroughs in connecting with a population that is sometimes difficult to reach.
In central Fairfax and the City of Fairfax, volunteers and staff with the nonprofit FACETS identified new campsites and were able to get more information out of the people they interviewed than they do under other circumstances.
“We got full names. We got Social Security numbers. We got cellphone numbers. We never get all of that,” said Maura Williams, deputy executive director of FACETS. “It’s obvious that they believe something positive will come out of this.”
In Reston, volunteers were able to connect with a man who regularly sleeps in front of the library in a way that Reston Interfaith outreach workers had not been able to do in the past, starting by offering him a cup of tea.
“It was a reminder that you’ve got to have persistence. You’ve got to have the right approach,” said Kerrie Wilson, executive director of Reston Interfaith.
Pam Michell, executive director of New Hope Housing, said she thought that allowing the homeless people to welcome visitors into their homes changed the relationship.
“To some extent I was surprised about how receptive people were,” she said. “I don’t know how receptive I would be if someone came tromping into my house at 5 in the morning.”
The next step in the process is for the county and its partner nonprofits to process the information they collected this week and start the work of trying to get people into housing. There will be a debriefing meeting on Monday to begin that discussion.
The volunteers who participated this week are a key element of the success of this effort moving forward, said Dean Klein, director of the county’s Office to Prevent and End Homelessness.
“I think it’s so important because it gives us an opportunity to welcome in new people, new energy, new ideas and new resources to make it happen,” Klein said.
Michell said she also hopes that giving citizens a chance to better understand each homeless person is an individual with different reasons for being homeless and different needs will translate to more support from the community in creating new housing or raising more funding.
“Now we have this powerful army of volunteers to help us,” Wilson said. “What I think we all understand is that we’re not going to forget this week.”