The yellow brick road in the basement of Annandale United Methodist Church is not magical. It does not pass under rainbows or lead to an Emerald City in the Land of Oz, contrary to the colorful graphics on the sign placed over entrance six.
It is, in fact, construction paper held to the carpeted floor with tape.
Unlike the fictional Wizard of Oz, however, the staff and volunteers who run the hypothermia prevention program hosted this week by Annandale United Methodist Church will not abandon guests in their search for a place to call home, even if the shelter they offer for now is temporary.
FACETS, a nonprofit that has offered services to help Fairfax County residents in poverty since 1988, launched its annual hypothermia prevention and response program at Annandale United Methodist Church on Dec. 1.
By the time the 2019-2020 season ends on Apr. 1, the program will welcome about 300 clients to 31 different churches around Fairfax County that are providing an escape from the winter chill, along with hot food and support services, including case management, medical and mental health assistance, and employment help.
“It’s very important to get the clients off the street,” FACETS permanent supportive housing case manager supervisor Norca Calderin said. “There’s so many people freezing outside, and it’s so cold, so it’s a privilege that we’re able to open the doors and save lives and give them temporary shelter.”
Initially created as an outreach project that delivered hot meals to homeless families, FACETS has since grown into more all-encompassing community services provider that offers food, housing, medical assistance, case management, enrichment programs, and other kinds of support for people struggling with poverty.
The nonprofit has operated a hypothermia prevention program for adults over 18 every winter since 2003, and the Annandale United Methodist Church has been a partner since the beginning.
Including the 31 churches that will host the mobile shelter for a week between December and April, more than 50 faith communities are involved in the program with some groups helping by providing volunteers or specific services, like food or transportation.
The program’s weekly location and information about public transportation and when the shelter will be open can be found on the FACETS website or through its hotline at 703-865-4272.
Annandale United Methodist Church, which is hosting the hypothermia program through this Saturday, is permitted by the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department to hold up to 50 individuals, but there are designated overflow churches that can accommodate any additional capacity needs, according to Teresa Beyer, who is overseeing the church’s hypothermia week for the third year in a row.
Beyer says her team adopted a Wizard of Oz theme this year in an effort make the church feel welcoming to the people who have no other home for the time being.
“We try to…make it a pleasant place,” Beyer said. “If you were inviting somebody over your house, what would you do? You want it to be nice. You want it to be pleasant. You want people to have a good time.”
Still, everyone involved with the FACETS hypothermia prevention program is aware that it takes more than three heel taps and a comforting mantra for people to find a home.
Of the 300-plus people who use the nonprofit’s hypothermia shelters every year, between 20 and 50 individuals, or about 25 percent of them, move into more permanent housing by the end of the season, according to Calderin.
That means many visitors never return to homelessness, but it also means some of the same faces reappear year after year.
Moreover, the FACETS hypothermia prevention program only represents a portion of the people who need these services.
FACETS is one of several organizations that work with the Fairfax County Office to Prevent and End Homelessness annually to provide hypothermia prevention shelters.
With the goal of ensuring that everyone has shelter during the coldest winter months, the county contracts with four nonprofit shelter operators that increase the number of available emergency shelter beds by instituting no-turn-away policies and working with faith communities to provide additional facilities and services.
Supported by 44 faith communities and more than 2,000 volunteers, the county’s nonprofit partners include Bethany House of Northern Virginia, Good Shepherd Housing and Family Services, Cornerstones, New Hope Housing, The Lamb Center, and Shelter House. A full list can be found on the Fairfax County government website.
The Fairfax County Hypothermia Prevention Program officially kicked off for this year on Nov. 15. Last season, it provided temporary shelter to 1,091 people at 49 different facilities.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, older adults with inadequate food, clothing, or heating and people who remain outdoors for long periods are among those most at risk of hypothermia, which occurs when a person’s body temperature drops below 95 degrees due to prolonged exposure to cold temperatures.
Last January, the Fairfax County Police Department reported three deaths in nine days that were attributed to cold weather.
Washington, D.C., has already experienced its first weather-related fatalities of the 2019-2020 winter season. Police linked the deaths of two men found during the week of Nov. 15 to a recent cold snap.
Warning signs of hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherent or slurred speech, drowsiness, and apparent exhaustion, according to Fairfax County.
The county advises anyone who sees someone that might be unsheltered and at risk to call the police department’s non-emergency line at 703-691-2131, which will prompt an officer to find the individual to conduct a wellness check and offer transportation to a hypothermia shelter if needed.
Calderin says that people who want to help FACETS with its hypothermia prevention efforts can contact the nonprofit’s program director, Maria Avila, who will connect them with volunteer manager Tammy Voss.
“However they want to help, we will try to navigate them in that area to help us, because there is always work to be done,” Calderin said.
Cyndi Jones has volunteered for the hypothermia program at Annandale United Methodist Church for years and says the church has gotten more efficient at organizing the shelter site.
However, with pay still trailing the cost of living for many people in Fairfax County, the program has become no less essential.
Fairfax County’s 2019 point-in-time count, conducted on Jan. 23, recorded 1,034 people who were literally homeless, a 5 percent increase from the 2018 count that recorded 987 people and a decline from the 1,835 people who were homeless when the county introduced its 10-year plan to prevent and end homelessness in 2008.
“The people are basically the same,” Jones said. “The needs are the same. You know, it’s just that basic need to be seen, to be known, to be wanted and to be accepted and to give them as much as you love as you can.”