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Hot and Cold on Homelessness

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Summer's scorching days keep families throughout the D.C. metro area planning ways to avoid the heat, such as swimming, vacations and evening cookouts. At FACETS, these dog days mean it's time to plan for the cold.

In fact, we recently held a planning meeting for our Hypothermia Prevention and Response Program, so that we're ready to help the homeless in our community survive the winter weather. It requires a lot of planning and coordination among partners to help homeless individuals and families weather the cold.

Every year, FACETS offers safe places to sleep and nutritious meals to men and women who are homeless through our Hypothermia Prevention and Response Program. This program is one of five operated across Fairfax and Falls Church in partnership with the Fairfax County government and approximately 40 faith communities.

The purpose of the hypothermia prevention program is just that: to prevent weather-induced illness and death. However, it's now more than that. For the third year in a row, FACETS offered personalized case management services and life improvement seminars to all guests who wanted to participate. Last season, nearly 40 percent of all hypothermia program guests chose to take advantage of these services, resulting in many adults moving off the streets and into permanent housing.

One of those guests was Jon, who had been homeless since leaving home as a teenager over 15 years ago. Over the years, he has struggled with alcohol addiction. Jon started coming to the hypothermia program in 2003 and had often expressed an interest in getting sober and changing his life. But every time an opportunity came up, he disappeared.

Last season was different. Through our case management services, we were able to help Jon get into a detox program. And this time, instead of staying just one night and leaving, Jon stayed for the entire program. From there, he went into a residential group home for individuals who suffer from addiction, which ended his more than 15 years of homelessness.

Of course, homelessness is a year round problem. Even though we are planning for the winter, we are also busy helping homeless families and individuals weather our region's severe heat too. In all, we have nearly 1,700 children and adults who are homeless in the Fairfax area -- only D.C. has more homeless in our region. A majority of the homeless are families -- most with children under age 11 -- and many work full time.

A key reason for homelessness in our region is the lack of affordable housing. Earning minimum wage and/or being underemployed prevents many people from being able to afford an apartment. In fact, a minimum wage earner must work 155 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom, market rate apartment. Also, according to Out of Reach 2011, approximately 46 percent of renters in Northern Virginia are unable to afford homes in the private housing market.

Domestic violence is also a significant reason that people end up homeless, as is poor health -- especially among the single individuals. In fact, 60 percent of single individuals who are homeless suffer from serious mental illness and/or substance abuse, and many have chronic health problems and physical disabilities.

To address the needs of these families and individuals, planning during the summer is critical. Many organizations and volunteers are needed to manage a well-run hypothermia program. Through this program, we can offer them more than food and warmth. We can give them access to other important services that can change their lives.

That's why, as I sit in my air conditioned office, I'm planning for snow -- knowing that a well-organized hypothermia prevention effort can help end homelessness -- for all seasons.