Donna Fortier sits at the front desk of the Mobile Hope office with volunteers.
Loudoun County and non-profits strive to meet growing, differentiated needs of those without a fixed night time address.
The students in Kelli Surbella’s biology class at Potomac Falls High School had a take home assignment. Take a picture of a tree outside your home during each season to show change. That was a problem for Surbella because she and her family were homeless.
Surbella asked if she could talk with the teacher after class about why she couldn’t do the assignment. Her teacher refused, saying she didn’t have time. Eventually, Surbella had to stand in front of the class and announce that she was homeless.
Surbella, now 21, was without a fixed night time shelter from the beginning of her eighth grade year through half of high school. Sometimes her family would be able to live in an apartment or town home for some time, but with her father struggling to find work and her mother often unable to work because she had stage 4 breast and ovarian cancer, the family could not stay at a fixed location.
They’d stay with extended family, family and friends, at hotels, and finally shelters. Surbella said that no matter what, her dad always found a way to get them housed and fed, but it came at a price. Sometimes the family would have to split up to find shelter, with her mom and the kids going to the family shelter and her father going to the men’s shelter.
Eventually, Surbella and her brothers were fostered and adopted by Surbella’s drama teacher and Surbella graduated high school. While she is thankful to those who helped her and her family, and for the fact that she and her brothers got to stay together, she wishes there were better county resources.
Homelessness by the Numbers
A May 2016 report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Homeless Services Planning and Coordinating Committee identified 134 homeless people in Loudoun County. According to the GMU Center for Regional Analysis, that number could be as high as 439 as of December 2016.
Why such a discrepancy? One reason is definitional.
The Council of Governments Report and GMU’s report use the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) definition of homelessness which defines homeless people as individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; individuals who have a primary nighttime residence that is a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations; an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.
In the past year, Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) and nonprofits have identified 1,600 homeless, precariously housed and at-risk youths in the county, suggesting the traditional definitions may still be too narrow.
“The homeless are always undercounted,” County Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis Randall (D-At Large) said.
Mobile Hope, a nonprofit serving homeless youth ages 24 and younger, is among those organizations trying to help by alleviating some of the financial burdens and setting students up for success.
“It takes a village to help and there’s a lot of misinformation out there,” Mobile Hope CEO and founder Donna Fortier told the Tribune at a back-to-school event.
Since most people don’t see the homeless or precariously housed population, they assume it’s not a problem in the county, Fortier said.
Mobile Hope operates under the McKinney Vento definition of homelessness: individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, and children and youths who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason.
This includes youths who may not technically be homeless, but may be couch surfing or living in a car or hotel.
The majority of homeless people in shelters have jobs but don’t make enough money to afford housing, according to a report by the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance and the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness. The report also said there is a severe shortage of affordable housing in Northern Virginia which contributes to the problem.
The most common sub-groups among homeless adults are adults with chronic health conditions and physical disabilities, according to the Council of Governments report.
County Resources and Shortcomings
Loudoun offers seasonal cold weather shelter for adults, emergency shelters for adults and families and transitional housing for adults and families. The county contracts the Volunteers of America Chesapeake to run the Loudoun Homeless Services Center in Leesburg, Department of Family Services Director Hope Stonerook said.
The center offers an emergency shelter for men, women and children, as well as a drop-in center with access to bathrooms, laundry services, phones, mailboxes and food. The center also connects individuals to temporary and permanent housing options, and operates the emergency cold-weather shelter.
Families and individuals are referred to these resources through the Department of Family Services.
The Good Shepherd Alliance in Ashburn, operates a women and children’s shelter and has transitional housing programs for pregnant women, single women and families.
The Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter (LAWS) in Leesburg focuses on domestic violence survivors and those at risk, and offers legal counseling, child care and parenting classes.
For all the good they seek to do, shelters only have so many beds, and many only allow people to stay for a few months. When Surbella was 15, she and her family stayed at a shelter for the full three months allowed. They then had to leave and all the other shelters had waiting lists.
Single dads and families with more than two children are often left without recourse, or have to split up, either because shelters only allow lodging for women and children, or there is not enough space at family shelters for larger families, Surbella said.
She wants the county to consider the different forms families may take, she said.
Mobile Hope hosts shopping nights every fourth Thursday of the month, and the mobile unit drives around the county once a week to serve food and other supplies — in addition to helping youths and families with housing, job seeking assistance, Medicaid enrollment, transportation donations and support and housing. The organization, like most others who aid the homeless, relies solely on donations, volunteers and sponsors.
LAWS and the Good Shepherd Alliance both have wishlists of supplies on their website. Surbella said sometimes people giving donations overlook some of the simplest things, such as bars of soap, value sized bottles of shampoo and conditioners, and feminine hygiene products.
Surbella remembers the shelters as helpful, but that finding out about them was not easy. While she was in school, neither counselors nor administrators pointed her or her family to county homeless resources. She and her brothers had access to meals through the free and reduced lunch program, but there was one important aspect Surbella felt was overlooked by the school system — mental health. Surbella felt she never got adequate help in navigating the mental and emotional aspects of homelessness.
“LCPS could definitely work on making sure the kids are emotionally okay because it takes a toll on you, it takes a toll on your family and that kind of messes how you view things in yourself because money is so valued in this society, that it’s like if you don’t have any, you’re not worth anything,” Surbella said.
“And it makes you think that you’re less than everyone else and just talking to the kids, talking to the families, showing them that they can better their circumstances, that things will get better — I mean, a lot of these kids, myself included, needed someone to tell them that it will get better, and it does.”
“You don’t want to give a hand out, you want to give them a hand up.” Phyllis Randall
Surbella said that many people look at homelessness as a moral failure — that the homeless are lazy and don’t want to work, but that’s not true, she said.
Randall echoed this, saying that the majority of homeless people want to work, and life events put them in a position to be precariously housed. Sometimes it means one parent loses a job when the household relied on two paychecks, or someone falls ill and can’t work and they didn’t have money set aside in a savings account to fall back on, she said.
Surbella sees transitional housing programs as a key to helping the homeless.
Randall agrees and would like to see more emphasis on transitional housing. Unlike emergency shelters, transitional housing is designed to help people get back on their feet, she said. Individuals and families who enroll in transitional housing programs are paired with a case worker who helps connect them to vocational programs and jobs.
“Everyone has a skill set, and almost all skill sets are marketable,” Randall said.
Depending on the program, residents can stay in transitional housing up to one or two years. They must adhere to the program to stay in transitional housing facilities, and work to meet benchmarks of saving money, she said.
“You don’t want to give a hand out, you want to give them a hand up,” Randall said.