Our church participates in a hypothermia program in Fairfax that provides shelter for homeless people during the winter months. We’re located several blocks from the public library in the City of Fairfax where many homeless people use library services and facilities. We’re also close to the Lamb Center that provides services to homeless people during daytime hours and a city bus stop is in front of our church.
All this makes our church parking lot a convenient place for vans and busses to pick up and take homeless people to area places of worship that provide shelter and a hot meal each night. Anywhere from 10-30 homeless people gather outside our church or in our lunchroom on a given evening. This is part of an effort organized by a social worker from FACETS, a local nonprofit that serves homeless people. Members of our church take turns being there during evenings when we’re serving homeless people.
This program is an example of the unselfish service provided by faith communities. Four nonprofit agencies, 35 churches, synagogues, and mosques, and about 2,300 volunteers served a little more than 1,000 homeless people in Fairfax County last year. Others of us are part of a coalition advocating for affordable housing with the mayor and city council. Such compassionate service and advocacy tends to go unnoticed yet provides a vital link in the health and welfare of our communities.
I have learned to know various homeless guests as I sit in our lunchroom talking with them while waiting for a van to take them to the church, synagogue, or mosque that will provide shelter on that night. Many suffer from physical handicaps, mental illness, or drug addictions. The loss of a job or a health crisis left them without the financial means to pay for a place to live. Many more people than we realize are only one job or one health crisis away from homelessness.
Hypothermia programs are only Band-Aids, not a long-term solution to homelessness. The goal has to be moving people into affordable permanent housing. “Housing first” initiatives have grown out of the realization that stabilizing other problems becomes much easier when people are able to find a place to live. It also costs municipalities less than having people bounce between jails, emergency rooms, and detoxification facilities.
Our homeless guests tell me what they need most is a job that pays a living wage and an affordable place to live. Some actually juggle several part-time minimum wage jobs. Affordable housing is a huge unmet social need in our community. A big part of the problem is finding places to build such housing in a high-cost metropolitan area like Fairfax. With that in mind, our congregation has begun exploring different alternatives to eventually build affordable housing on part of our church property. We won’t be able to do it ourselves. It will take the combined effort of various private and government resources.