It was cold and dark. The only sounds were the rustling of leaves and cracking of branches as we walked deep into the woods on three early mornings during late February. Our quest was to find men and women who are chronically homeless around Fairfax County. But what seemed like "deep into the woods" was really only a stone's throw from gated communities and high-end shopping centers that make up the county, one of the nation's wealthiest.
This journey was the start of the 100,000 Homes Fairfax Campaign. On February 25-27, more than 200 volunteers spread out across Fairfax County for the campaign's "Registry Week," going into the woods and other places where the homeless are living in order to count, photograph, and get names and histories for these individuals. They used smartphones and geo tracking to locate homeless men and women, resulting in more than 462 interviews.
Volunteers from FACETS, Fairfax County Office to Prevent and End Homelessness, New Hope Housing, Pathway Homes, Reston Interfaith, and Volunteers of America Chesapeake, faith communities and businesses surveyed people who are homeless living in encampments throughout the county. The findings will used to create profiles of people to ensure that each homeless individual is counted and that their progress in finding housing and services can be better tracked.
What we learned was that:
• Nearly a quarter were between 18-34 years old
• The largest number of interviewees (151) were found in the Route 1 corridor
• More than three-quarters of interviewees were male
• "Unable to pay rent/utilities" and "job loss" were by far the most cited reasons for homelessness
• 10 percent were veterans
• Nearly half were employed
• 40 percent had a physical disability
For me, Registry Week was about persistence. Volunteers went into the woods persistently trying to find a camp site or locate the resident since some of the individuals who are homeless had gone to work before we got there or were on their way back to the woods from an overnight shift. And they did not give up, going back again and again after being refused an interview in order to connect with our neighbors who are homeless to learn their stories and needs.
And most importantly, it was about the persistence of the men and women we met living in their cars or on the street. In the worst conditions, they continued to smile and seem hopeful that this caring community would help find them a home.
In fact, one friendly man -- who was headed to work -- welcomed our group of Reston Interfaith volunteers into his home, a makeshift tent with the Reston Town Center silhouetted in the background. The irony did not escape me, but his willingness to share his story so that we could put a face on homelessness provided another reason to forge ahead. With renewed energy and purpose, I am reminded that this man and so many others are counting on our leadership to help end their homelessness.