Jeff Lisanick was homeless from June to December 2009.
Like many other Americans, he lost his job in the wake of 2008’s Great Recession, and he had nowhere else to go. So, he found himself seeking a bed at the Eleanor U. Kennedy Shelter on Richmond Highway in Fort Belvoir.
“[It’s] kind of hard to describe, but it was like being in boarding school,” said Lisanick, who now works at the same shelter as a residential coordinator. “They really expect you to take responsibility, take ownership and do what you need to do to end your homelessness.”
Operated by the nonprofit organization New Hope Housing, the Kennedy Shelter is one of seven emergency shelters in Fairfax County and one of three shelters geared toward homeless, single adults, with the other four aimed at families.
Fairfax County wants to minimize its reliance on shelters as a means of addressing issues related to poverty and homelessness, treating its emergency shelters as a last resort, rather than the first stop, in case of a crisis.
The county first changed its approach to its homeless population in 2008, when the Board of Supervisors adopted a 10-year plan to end homelessness.
Titled “Blueprint for Success: Strategic Directions for the Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness in the Fairfax-Falls Church Community,” the plan was developed by a committee of residents, nonprofit groups, and business, school and government leaders. Its ultimate goal is to eliminate homelessness in the county by 2018.
The plan calls for the establishment of social services and policies that can prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place as well as the creation of more affordable housing options, and homelessness has decreased by 42 percent since the 10-year plan started seven years ago.
“We’re not there yet, but we’re making good progress,” said Lisanick, who serves as a volunteer on the consumer advisory council (CAC).
The CAC includes people who’ve used the county’s homeless services and gives input to the governing board that oversees the 10-year plan’s implementation.
A key component of the 10-year plan is the county’s Housing First policy, where it provides permanent housing and supportive services as soon as possible, preferably before someone has to enter a shelter.
Rather than acting as a long-term option, Fairfax County’s shelters are meant to be temporary, with staff aiming to house shelter residents (typically referred to as “clients”) within 30 days, though the deadline is flexible depending on each person’s circumstances. At the Patrick Henry Family Shelter in Falls Church, for example, the average length of stay is 60 days.
“We’re really working to make sure their stay in the shelter is as short as possible, that their homelessness is rare, brief and non-re-occurring,” Office to Prevent and End Homelessness (OPEH) director Dean Klein said. “It’s really intended to be more of a crisis response to ensure those who need shelter have a place to go.”
When an individual or family enters a shelter, they undergo assessments regarding their financial and employment histories, medical status, and their basic living needs, including requirements when it comes to housing and support services.
Clients then typically meet with an assigned case manager within their first 24 to 48 hours at a shelter and a housing locator within their first week.
Housing locators generally try to find new, permanent affordable housing for clients, but due to the limited availability of new affordable housing in Fairfax County, they often work with private landlords to find rental options instead.
“Affordable housing, I think, continues to be the number one challenge that we see as a cause for people coming into the shelter and as a barrier for them moving out of the shelter,” said Greg White, the chief operating officer of Cornerstones, which runs the Embry Rucker Community Shelter in Reston.
With a median income of $110,674 for all households and $130,071 for families, per a 2014 U.S. Census Bureau survey, Fairfax County is simply too expensive for many people to live.
More than 60 percent of the homeless families in Fairfax County have an adult who is working, according to Lisanick, who says that the county has built next-to-no new affordable housing in recent years.
Fairfax County offers financial assistance to shelter clients, sometimes offering subsidies or paying a deposit or the first month’s rent so that they can hopefully keep their new residence, but some clients face more obstacles to finding housing than others.
High barriers, as those obstacles are called, include a past record of evictions, debt or credit trouble, a bad financial or employment history, and a criminal background. It’s also difficult to find affordable housing in Fairfax County for large families, says Shelter House executive director and CEO Joe Meyer.
Shelter House is another one of the local nonprofits contracted by the county to operate its shelters. The organization runs the Patrick Henry Family Shelter and Fairfax’s Katherine K. Hanley Family Shelter.
“We really work on a housing-first model, meaning that income and all that shouldn’t be a barrier to folks getting housing,” Laura Woody, Shelter House’s director of programs and services for region 2, said. “That’s sort of the best practice model for housing, and it works for a lot of people.”
While in a Fairfax County homeless shelter, clients receive case management, housing, employment assistance, and medical and mental health services. The shelters also sometimes provide subsidies for public transportation use and food.
The Patrick Henry Family Shelter stands out from other shelters because it has apartment-style rooms, allowing the nondescript, unmarked building to blend in with the surrounding neighborhood.
Families at Patrick Henry cook their own food with supplies donated to the shelter and children can get transportation to school from the shelter. According to Woody, the shelter works with Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) to also provide on-site tutoring.
However, none of this means a homeless shelter is a good place for people to live long-term.
“We really believe that spending time in a shelter isn’t helpful to a family, just for their mental health,” Woody said. “Even if we’re the nicest, greatest shelter, this isn’t stable… If we can avoid you coming here altogether and keep your family stably housed, let’s do that.”
Though there are some variations from one shelter to another, depending on if they’re designed for single adults or families, OPEH issue strict guidelines for shelters in Fairfax County.
For instance, Lisanick recalls that he had to follow a set schedule for meals and laundry when he lived at the Kennedy Shelter.
Clients must adhere to a 9:30 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. curfew. People who fail to show up during that time and don’t have permission from the shelter’s staff to stay out at night forfeit their bed.
These stringent rules don’t always sit well with clients, who are already in the middle of the toughest period of their lives.
Alexandria native Mike Davis, for example, said in May that he’d been denied entry to Embry Rucker, where he’d been staying for about a month, when he had to stay at a hospital for five days to get surgery on his leg.
“They said the reason they put me out was because I didn’t let them know I was out of the shelter for more than 48 hours,” Davis said. “That’s a very sorry excuse to put me out of there.”
Once an outspoken advocate who solicited and distributed donations to homeless people along Richmond Highway, as chronicled in a 2013 article in the Alexandria Times, Davis has been in and out of shelters for more than 25 years, in part due to his diabetes, which he has had for 20 years, and other medical issues that have made it difficult for him to get and keep a job.
“I have enough physical and emotional problems without [the shelter] adding on to it,” Davis said, adding that he isn’t going to return to Embry Rucker.
Though they may seem arbitrary to clients, the curfew and the shelters’ other rules are in place for a reason, according to Lisanick, who says that his perspective has changed now that he’s a staff member for New Hope Housing instead of a resident.
While he’s not sure why the curfew policy was initially put in place, Lisanick says that it offers a sense of structure to clients’ days while ensuring that the shelters are able to accommodate as many people as possible, since space is limited.
“If you don’t have permission to be out and you spend the whole night out, you really have somewhere else to go,” Lisanick said. “The whole purpose for the shelter isn’t to give a place to anybody. It’s to give a place for people that don’t have a place.”
The relationships between shelter staff and clients can also be tense and volatile as the residents’ needs and expectations clash with the restrictions placed on the county, particularly when it comes to housing and other resources.
One Patrick Henry client, who replied that she’s “been better” when asked how she was doing, expressed frustration regarding the housing that the shelter initially offered her.
“They wanted to send me out to Roanoke, Virginia to live, and because I turned the housing down there, I felt like everyone was turned against me,” the woman, who asked not to be identified because she’s still working with shelter staff members, said. “It was such an inconvenience for all of us out there. They just didn’t want to hear it.”
A mother of two, the woman said that she wanted to stay in Fairfax County and was looking to get a temporary job so that she would have some income before seeking a more permanent position.
However, while they try to accommodate requests for a specific location or type of house, housing locators take clients’ current income into consideration when finding residences that would be suitable for each individual, according to Meyer and Woody.
Meyer says that clients are never forced to move outside of Fairfax County, but sometimes, they have to be realistic about the potential benefits of relocating to a different, less expensive jurisdiction.
“I tell people myself, we want you to get housing in Fairfax County, but we can’t work miracles,” Woody said. “I don’t have vast amounts of affordable housing in my back pocket. We’re working within a system that’s out of our control, so we have to figure out how to make it sustainable.”
According to Woody, 75 percent of the families at Patrick Henry have permanent housing when they leave the shelter, and the remainder usually enter a transitional housing program or temporarily move in with family or friends.
Ultimately, though, Fairfax County’s shelters are a transient, individualized solution to the much deeper, systematic issues of the region’s lack of affordable housing and the wide disparity between the rich and poor.
The million-dollar houses and elegant, new apartment complexes that populate the county can obscure the prevalence of poverty and homelessness in the community.
According to point-in-time data from an annual community survey issued in January, roughly 1,000 people have experienced homelessness in the Fairfax County and Falls Church area in 2016, down from more than 1,800 in 2008. Many other people may be one or two paychecks away from the same situation.
Lisanick says that, in addition to advising the governing board, the CAC focuses on raising awareness about homelessness and lending a personal touch to the issue, pushing back against the stereotype of people who are homeless as lazy and inept.
“As someone who was formerly homeless, we do get redemption,” Lisanick said. “We’re not hopeless. We’re not worthless. We’re not useless. We can make a positive contribution to society. Homeless people, they’re people.”