Overwhelmed Fairfax Shelter Temporarily Closes
Homeless Center Deliberates Future As Demand for Its Services Swells
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 7, 2006; B02
One of Northern Virginia's only daytime homeless shelters has been so stretched by the number of people needing help this winter that the facility has closed for 48 hours while its staff determines its future, the shelter director said yesterday.
The Lamb Center, a daytime drop-in program operated by Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax City, has been coping with a sharp increase in the number of homeless people it has been serving. What began several years ago as a place for spiritual guidance and job counseling has evolved into a critical source of support for those without shelter in Fairfax.
This winter, 60 to 70 people, mostly single adult men, have been coming to the center every day for a meal, a shower, a telephone, washing machines and a gathering place for those taking late-afternoon buses to spend the night in one of the Fairfax churches participating in a program to keep the homeless off the street in cold weather.
That is roughly twice the number of previous years. And it has created an often crowded, sometimes chaotic scene at the small (less than 3,500 square feet) converted car radio repair store on Old Lee Highway near Fairfax Circle.
"We've just been swamped to the gills," said director Bob Wyatt, who said the numbers have made it difficult to pursue the spiritual end of his mission. The church decided to close the center's doors until tomorrow morning to give Wyatt and his staff a chance to clean up and reorganize what space they have.
The increased numbers have frayed the staff and relations with Fairfax City, which has long been uncomfortable with the center's location in a commercial strip adjacent to a 7-Eleven, where many of the homeless purchase alcohol. At least twice in recent weeks, city police have responded to calls at the center. In one instance Feb. 17, police arrived to find a man outside the center waving a two-foot board and threatening to hit people. He was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.
"The Lamb Center is in a crisis situation because of overcrowding and its popularity," said Fairfax City Mayor Robert F. Lederer, who said he has worked for months to find it a new location.
Wyatt and church officials say they remain committed to the Lamb Center. But Bob Sisson, Fairfax's city manager, said Truro seriously considered closing the facility permanently.
"That's what they told us," Sisson said.
Tom Riley, Truro's project manager for the Lamb Center, replied, "I can't imagine us doing that."
Wyatt did acknowledge, however, that the center may make changes to try to winnow the numbers. Among the possibilities: cutting back on meals and using a firmer hand in helping patrons make new plans for their lives.
City, county and church officials met over the weekend to discuss the situation. To improve conditions at the center, the city agreed to provide space at a nearby park as a gathering spot for people taking buses to overnight church shelters. The county donated two Fairfax Connector buses to assist.
The Lamb Center's predicament is part of what Fairfax officials describe as an increase in the number of people seeking shelter.
Waiting lists for families seeking space in one of the county's five shelters have expanded over the last year, from an average of 60 families to more than 90. Church volunteers anticipated about 30 to 35 each night for their shelter program. Instead, the numbers have been twice that, despite the relatively mild winter.
Fairfax's homeless population has hovered around 2,000 for the past five years, the highest of any area jurisdiction except the District, with its more than 8,900 homeless, according to the most recent figures. Those who work with the homeless are not sure whether the increased demand at shelters represents an increase in the population or heightened awareness of the services available.
"I don't think the homeless population is growing. I think they just found us," Riley said.
Whatever the underlying reasons, county officials said yesterday that the Lamb Center is a critical link in the chain of services for the area's homeless and that permanent closure is not an option.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said a task force is being assembled to redouble efforts to find a new home for the center.
"The Lamb Center is an absolutely essential lifeline," he said.
Yesterday, with the Lamb Center closed, its clients were scattered about central Fairfax, some in libraries, others in parks or movie theaters. Waiting for the bus yesterday at Draper Drive Park, Louis Crandall, 52, said: "This has left a lot of people in dire straits."