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Fairfax County churches won’t host homeless this year, but help in other ways

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Every winter for the past 15 years, houses of worship in sprawling Fairfax County have partnered with the local government and area nonprofits in a program designed to ensure that no one experiencing homelessness has to sleep outside on dangerously cold nights because there is “no room at the inn” — or the local homeless shelter.

The Hypothermia Prevention Program operates a seasonal network of ad-hoc overflow shelters at more than 30 churches throughout the county to supplement space at permanent area shelters. Volunteers from each church, including St. John Neumann in Reston and St. Mary of Sorrows in Fairfax, mobilize for one week from December through April 1, to create enough additional sleeping spaces that no one has to be turned away.

"Yes, we can keep them warm and feed them, but it’s also an important part of the program to esteem the people, to listen to them and let them know we care about them. We’re sad that that’s going to be missing this year.” Pam Dister

Many other smaller churches, as well as area synagogues and mosques, assist by providing meals, nightly activities, entertainment, grocery and gas cards, bus passes and other services. Other Catholic churches participating include St. Mark in Vienna, St. Thomas à Becket in Reston and St. Ambrose in Annandale.

More than 1,000 people are homeless in Fairfax County and last year, the Hypothermia Prevention Program saw an average of 215 guests a night. But this year, the coronavirus pandemic is preventing churches from opening their doors to homeless guests.

“We needed to get creative, as many of our previous partners have insufficient space to safely accommodate guests in a COVID-19 environment,” said Tom Barnett, director of Fairfax County’s Office to Prevent and End Homelessness.

County officials scrambled to fill the gap and settled on the old Container Store space in Tysons Corner, which the county purchased and was using as a storage facility after the store moved to a new location nearby. The new space will supplement six permanent shelters across the county.

The 19,000-square-foot space is large enough to accommodate up to 84 guests a night. Each gets a socially distanced 100 square feet of sleeping space, said Joe Fay, executive director of FACETS, the Fairfax nonprofit the county contracts with to run the program and coordinate with other nonprofits and faith community partners.

“In light of the pandemic, the program this year is of course very focused on staff and guest safety and has worked with the county and Health Department to establish standards related to cleaning, PPE (personal protective equipment), meal service and social distancing,” he said.

Unlike in prior years when guests arrived at the churches for dinner and left the next morning, they are allowed to stay at the location during the day, Fay said. Some have jobs or other daytime appointments, but about a third have been staying on site. “This was implemented because many of the warm, safe spaces that guests might normally go to during the day, such as libraries, community centers, coffee shops, etc., are closed this year,” he added.

Michael Dykes, FACETS’ on-site leader for the Hypothermia Prevention Program, says the 100 square feet per individual means each guest has a taped-off 10- by 10-foot space to sleep on a folding foam pad. That’s much larger than the 25 or 30 square feet they get in “a normal hypo season,” he said. There is also a health screening protocol and questionnaire at entry each night.

Dykes said that “a lot of the people that utilize our program don’t feel comfortable in a regular shelter, but we try to keep people safe and warm throughout the winter season. The majority of people that do come in would (otherwise) be sleeping in the woods.”

Churches are committed to staying involved in the program by delivering food, clothing items and gas cards, even though they can’t provide in-person hospitality this year, said Pam Dister, a parishioner of St. John Neumann. She has been one of the volunteer coordinators for the church’s Hypothermia Prevention week since the church began participating 14 years ago. This year, her team is collecting donations and organizing 21 meals for about 120 guests plus staff at two of the program’s shelters the week of Jan. 17-24. St. Mary of Sorrows also will provide some meals during the week.

While Dister is glad churches are providing food and supplies as part of the area’s homeless safety net, “that’s just a small part of our mission,” she said. 

“Yes, we can keep them warm and feed them, but it’s also an important part of the program to esteem the people, to listen to them and let them know we care about them. We’re sad that that’s going to be missing this year.”

Tom McIntyre, who coordinates the program at St. Mary of Sorrows, agrees.

“We’ve always felt when we did this and hosted the guests, we tried to make them feel special, like somebody really cared,” he said. Given this year’s COVID-19 risks, stepping back is “the intelligent answer,” he said, “but we feel a little bit of a loss that we can’t do the kinds of things we used to.”

Find out more 

To learn more about Fairfax County’s Hypothermia Prevention Program, go to fairfaxcounty.gov/homeless/hypothermia-prevention-program.

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021