Photo of a speech given at the grand opening of Arlington's downtown Homeless Service Center.
Matailong Du

Arlington County, Virginia has opened a new 24-hour center for homeless residents of the county in downtown Arlington, near the Courthouse Metro. The new center gathers together under the same roof facilities for providing food, shelter, a full-time nurse practitioner with medical respite program, counseling and job training.  All of that cuts down on the amount of time needed to move someone from homelessness to having housing.

Beforehand, Arlington depended upon a homeless shelter that was open only five months during the winter. Arlington’s old services for their homeless clients were cumbersome compared to the everything-under-one-roof arrangement the new center enables. The old winter shelter is only a block from the new comprehensive center.

An estimated 400 county dignitaries and citizens attended the October 1 grand opening.  The county’s state Congressional delegation and Congressman Donald Beyer attended.

All officials who spoke said Arlington reached this milestone, though delayed by construction setbacks, by making homelessness a government priority.  County Board Chairman J. Walter Tejada reminded everyone that ending homelessness is part of the county’s 10-year plan.

“We ran for election because we wanted to make a difference,” Tejada told the assembled crowd. “We’ve had a good number of people take on leadership with this in Arlington; we need a safety net for our most vulnerable people.”

The new $9.68 million center is the only one of its kind in the Washington region, according to a fact sheet provided by Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network (A-SPAN) – the nonprofit contracted by county government to run the center.

Kathleen Sibert, CEO of A-SPAN, said the new facility is not the “endgame,” but a bridge to independence. A-SPAN’s fact sheet says these new resources will enable them to end veteran and chronic homelessness by the end of 2016.

The center provides 50 year-round beds, as well as 25 additional winter hypothermia prevention beds and five medical respite beds.

On a recent walk-through, bedrooms, bathrooms, eating area and counseling areas were painted with bright, inviting colors. There is an emphasis on opening up spaces to be larger and more welcoming. A-SPAN Senior Director of Development Scott Miller said the bright, open, naturally lit spaces don’t cost any more than the fluorescent lighting used in most office buildings.

The Center occupies the second and third floors of an office building  that will eventually also house county government agencies.

During its approval process, many residents of nearby condominium buildings fiercely opposed the center. At public hearings they proclaimed to fear loiterers on the premises of their condos as well as sexual predators accosting them as they walked to the Metro two blocks away.

The county’s response was to build an eight-foot wall that separates the shelter’s back door from the nearest condominium building.  There will also be a security guard patrolling the grounds from 4 p.m. to midnight, and continuously monitored security cameras.

The price tag for all this is shared among Arlington County, which has put up $1.3 million, A-SPAN, which has managed to gather $2 million, federal funds and private donors.

The services are restricted to Arlington County residents; those from elsewhere are directed to services provided by their home jurisdictions. All new entrants have 96 hours to provide documentation that they are Arlington County residents.

According to A-SPAN’s fact sheet, the Arlington community saves 50 percent by moving somebody into a home rather than their staying homeless.  It costs the county $45,000 each year for a person to live on the street. That amount is cut to $22,000 when that person is housed.  The A-SPAN program served more than 1,600 people annually before the new center opened.

Residents interviewed for this story emphasized they are within reach of their own housing and/or jobs because they didn’t give up on themselves or their lives. Each one especially swore by the efforts of their caseworkers at the center.

Elizabeth was in an abusive relationship with a man she described as strictly friendly while she lived with him and his son. The man was a crack cocaine addict.

Image of Elizabeth sitting on her bunk at the center.

Elizabeth sits at her bunk in the new Homeless Services Center in Arlington, Virginia | Photo by Alexandra Pamias

She paid him $600/month for what she understood to be a rent-sharing arrangement. She made money walking dogs. The man told Elizabeth after a while that he needed to move to the West Coast to care for a sick relative.

She described that the relationship had gotten so bad that, “Either I was going to kill him or he was going to kill me.”

Shortly after he left, police came to the door and told Elizabeth she needed to leave because the couple was several months behind on rent. They also said her “friend” was a con man who had used the money she gave him for rent to fuel his addiction.

Elizabeth knew she needed help. She has a bad knee, neck and back. In addition to the physical pain she said, “my soul hurts a lot … from what I see on the street.”

Several of Elizabeth’s friends recommended A-SPAN, which is well-known for its work in the Arlington community. Like other occupants interviewed, she said the A-SPAN case managers and workers have helped her a lot and treated her like a person rather than one of society’s misbegotten.

Elizabeth wants badly to have new housing. She said she’d be living under a bridge if it weren’t for A-SPAN.

Another client, Shameka, found out about A-SPAN through the Arlington Social Services office. She is looking for part-time work at Burlington Coat Factory and Goodwill.

The medications prescribed to Shameka for manic-bipolar disorder and manic depression should not be combined. So she doesn’t take any, although she does see a psychiatrist regularly.Shameka was kicked out of her apartment in Arlington for failure to pay rent.

She was also quick to praise A-SPAN’s employees.

“They are not quick to bash you for having issues; they’re willing to help if you’re willing to help yourself,” Shameka said.

Shameka thinks she’d be living on somebody’s floor if it weren’t for A-SPAN. According to her, everybody needs to make sacrifices to get themselves where they need to be.

“Don’t ever give up,” she said. “You push and fight for what you want; that’s it.”

Shameka stands in the doorway of the room she shares with another resident at the Homeless Service Center in Arlington, Virginia | Photo by Alexandra Pamias

Shameka stands in the doorway of the room she shares with another resident at the Homeless Service Center in Arlington, Virginia | Photo by Alexandra Pamias