Seal of Arlington County, VA
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In what advocates hailed as a “defining moment” in Arlington County’s quest to address homelessness,  the county board unanimously approved a special “dormitory” residential-use permit enabling the  operation of a homeless shelter for single adults in near the Courthouse Metro stop.

The Thomas Building, at 2020 14th St. North, in the heart of downtown Arlington, was purchased by the county for just over $27 million. The county expects to spend $42.6 million renovating the building over the next five years. Renovation is set to begin in fall 2013 and the Homeless Services Center is scheduled to open in November 2014.

“It may be one of the most important things you’re going to do for the people of this county,” Rev. Richard Cobb told the County Board before its March 16 vote. “God bless you.”

Homelessness “can happen to any of us,” said Kathleen Sibert, Executive Director of A-SPAN, or Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network. The organization, which has run a nearby emergency shelter for 20 years is slated to  run the new service center as well. Sibert described the new shelter as a safe and welcoming place for vulnerable residents.

“It’s taken a long time to get this done,” stated Board Chairman J. Walter Tejada, adding that the county had been looking for a long time until now to replace the current emergency shelter. The facility was not adequate, he said, for the comprehensive, year-round, 24/7 access shelter that was needed.

The shelter will occupy the second and third floors of the office building, with shelter services on the second and sleeping quarters on the third. The men’s and women’s sleeping areas will be segregated.  Floors of office space for Arlington County government, as well as for retail shops and other commercial offices, will also be included.

It will be designed to address the needs of single, homeless Arlington residents ages 18 to 75, and will seek to move them toward permanent housing and self-sufficiency. It will be equipped with 50 year-round beds, plus 25 extra beds during the colder months from November until the end of March. In addition, five extra beds will be available for residents who need nursing care.

Homeless families with children, or those who have domestic problems, will be directed to other county facilities staffed and equipped to deal with those needs.

Opponents of the comprehensive shelter continued to insist that the county government was not focusing on their personal security and safety as neighborhood residents. They have complained about the possibility of violent criminals and sex offenders being admitted to the shelter.

In response to calls at community meetings for round-the-clock security, Arlington agreed to pay for a trained, tested security guard to patrol the premises outside the Center from 4 p.m. until midnight seven days a week. The county also agreed to put in a surveillance camera that will pan the outside perimeter of the center all the time, though no one will constantly monitor the video.

Board member Libby Garvey said, “I think this shelter is going to make everybody feel safer.”

She added the county government has been listening to the nay-sayers, just not giving them the answer they want to hear.

“We’ve got this population here (the homeless adults); the question is what we do with it . . . We’re actually strengthening our community and making it more secure.”

With its approval, the Board recommended a review of the center’s operation by the county administrator after six months and another at a year after it opens in October 2015.

The Board meeting ended on a note of optimism and triumph for Center supporters.

Tejada said in closing remarks, “If there’s a jurisdiction or county in the country that can end homelessness, you’re here in it.”