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Homeless find safe haven at St. John Neumann Church

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The sky was a solid block of grey, the weather wet and the ground cold outside St. John Neumann Church in Reston on a recent Tuesday evening. But inside the parish center, 52 people munched on meatloaf, listened to a live band and found a safe place to sleep on the floor — instead of huddling for warmth inside a car or in the woods. 

For the past 10 years, St. John Neumann has opened its doors to homeless men and women for one week each winter, with the goal of saving lives at risk from exposure to the winter weather. The makeshift hypothermia shelter is the result of collaboration with the nonprofit organizations FACETS and Northern Virginia Family Service, Fairfax County and a large network of volunteers — many of whom return year after year. 

 “It’s a service that truly needs to be done,” said Patty Holley, a parishioner who helped found the program 10 years ago. Along with Co-chair Pam Dister, Holley has organized it for the last 10 years. “I wish it didn’t need to be done, that we didn’t have people who sleep in the woods when they’re homeless.”

Nationwide, the number of people who are homeless has dropped 14 percent since 2010, according to a report issued by the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development in November. Virginia has made even more progress in assisting homeless individuals during the last decade: The rate of homelessness has dropped by 31 percent since 2010. And in Fairfax County — where St. John Neumann is located and the county government has made an ambitious effort to end homelessness — point-in-time tallies show a consistent decrease in the number of homeless individuals every year, with 42 percent fewer homeless individuals counted in 2016 than on a similar night in 2008. 

Despite these efforts, a hidden population remains at risk — sleeping in tents in the woods, parking lots and their cars. There were still 6,268 homeless people in Virginia in 2016, according to the HUD report. And still others are “housing insecure” — not technically homeless, but moving from couch to couch each night. 

That’s what keeps volunteers going at St. John Neumann each year.

“This is a pro-life thing. It is about saving lives,” Holley said. “People die from exposure to the elements.”

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Hairstylist Harmony Janney cuts guest Dwayne Ross' hair after dinner. Mary Stachyra Lopez | Catholic Herald

The church opened its doors at 5 p.m. each night from Jan. 15 to 22, offering home-cooked meals prepared in advance (and frozen) by volunteers, entertainment and a place to take care of some hygenic needs. To reach the church, located on a winding suburban road without sidewalks, some of the guests arrived in their cars; others took Fairfax Connector buses or shuttles provided by NVFS and FACETS.

No one is ever turned away, not even the occasional guest who is inebriated or otherwise impaired. 

“The goal of the program is to save lives,” Holley said. “It’s not about curing their problems. They can stay based on behavior.”

hypothermia 10 finalBut there were no obvious issues in sight the evening of Jan. 17. After Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Father Joseph T. Brennan prayed a blessing, guests lined up to fill their trays, each tray lined with pictures drawn by CCD students. As the Bank Street Band played “One Fine Day” on stage, a man named Randy — leaning on crutches and wearing a green plastic rosary around his neck — danced between some of the circular tables that filled much of the room. A man named Sean watched over his plate of mashed potatoes and meatloaf and voiced his approval of the music. “I like the oldies, you know?” 

Some guests made their way to the side of the room, where three local hairstylists had set up chairs and begun cutting hair. One man picked up his cell phone and showed the hairstylist a picture of what he wanted through the cracked screen. 

A sewing machine was available for mending items, as well as a “clothing store” where guests could refresh a few basic clothing items. In a manner meant to reflect Holy Thursday, a nurse was on hand that week to wash feet, trim nails and offer new socks. “Feet and teeth are the most vulnerable parts of the body for those who are homeless,” Holley noted. 

Guests seemed appreciative of the efforts — but keenly aware that it wasn’t home. 

 “The program is okay,” said Sean, his voice flat. “It’s better than sleeping in the rain.” He paused for a few moments. “I don’t know where some people would be without it.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017