The totals are in. The number of homeless people in Loudoun has hit a new low.
That’s according to the county’s annual Point-in-Time Count, which identifies people who are considered “literally homeless” under a strict federal definition.
The count, conducted on Jan. 28, found 134 people lacked housing. It’s the lowest homeless count Loudoun has seen in more than 10 years, all while the county’s population has grown by more than 100,000 people.
Some say the Point-in-Time Count—the results of which were released earlier this month—does not give the full picture of homelessness in Loudoun because it overlooks people in jail, in the hospital, or staying in hotels or with friends or family on the night of Jan. 28. To receive federal Department of Housing and Urban Development money, jurisdictions must follow narrow guidelines, counting only individuals who are living in shelters or in places not meant for human habitation.
But many in the county government and nonprofit sector say the count shows that Loudoun has made progress in providing help to those who need it most.
Beth Hodge, executive director of the Loudoun Homeless Services Center, has some reservations about looking solely at the Point-in-Time Count as an indication that homelessness is down, in part because this year’s took place when Loudoun had 3 feet of fresh snow on the ground. But she has seen anecdotal evidence that fewer people do not have a place to call home.
As one example, she points to the tent city that once existed near the county’s shelter on Meadowview Court in Leesburg that has since gone away. “Yes, we’ve got more work to do,” she said, “but we are definitely moving in the right direction.”
A New Strategy
For several years, Loudoun County government and nonprofit leaders saw the total number of homeless people tick up from 152 in 2009 to 179 in 2014, and many of the same faces each year.
“Clearly, the way we were addressing homelessness wasn’t working. So we said, ‘it’s time to be creative and think outside the box,’” Hodge said.
In 2014, Loudoun County’s Department of Family Services contracted with Volunteers of America and the Loudoun Homeless Services Center to start a pilot program. They turned two apartments into so-called “permanent supportive housing units” for chronically homeless men and women. Each got their own unit, as well as intensive case management to help them address physical or mental illness, substance addiction, and any other obstacles.
“We found that once they were housed and received services, their health improved, they returned to work, their income rose and then they’d decide to move out on their own somewhere,” said Beth Rosenberg, housing finance programs manager for the Loudoun County Department of Family Services. “It was a success.”
So last year, the county targeted all of its U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant—about $155,000—to permanent supportive housing units, creating eight at the Homeless Services Center facility on Meadowview Court in Leesburg and 10 off-site apartments. Residents are asked to pay a portion of the rent, about 30 percent of their income.
County and nonprofit leaders credit the new strategy for the apparent decline in homelessness.
Hodge recounted the story of one woman who has been homeless for several years and is now on her way to living on her own thanks to the program. She is mentally ill and went from being convinced everyone was out to hurt her, to moving into an apartment and being willing to receive counseling and sign up for Supplemental Security Income so she can live independently. “It’s been a years-long process to get her to that spot,” Hodge said. “For us, that’s a success.”
Giving people enough help to get them off the streets permanently ultimately costs less, both Rosenberg and Hodge stressed. “ER visits, free clinics, jail time, recovery services—all that costs more than it does to put somebody in an apartment and support them for a time until they get on their feet,” Hodge said. “Otherwise, it costs us more financially. It cost us more morally.”
See the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Homeless’ full Point-in-Time Count report here.
Not the Full Picture
Homelessness in Loudoun may be down—or it may be up—depending what definition is used, according to Donna Fortier, executive director of Loudoun Mobile Hope.
Her organization that serves precariously housed young adults and youth, as well as the Loudoun County Public Schools, defines homelessness under the federal Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act. The act defines homeless children as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”
Under that definition, Loudoun County Public Schools has identified 1,827 students considered homeless or precariously housed. That’s up significantly from 1,108 during the 2013-2014 school year and from 1,332 last school year. Many of them are living in situations that would not be counted as “literally homeless” by HUD, Fortier said.
“When people think about homelessness, they conjure up an image of a chronically homeless person living under a bridge. That doesn’t depict all of the faces of homelessness,” Fortier said. “It’s important that the community is aware that there are two definitions of homelessness. Those who we [Mobile Hope] take care of do their best to hide—they’re not necessarily that person who’s living under the bridge.”
One of Mobile Hope’s longtime clients, who is also one of their most dedicated volunteers, does not fit the homelessness stereotype. Cinthia R. first moved into the Loudoun County Youth Shelter at 14 after her father was convicted of abuse and sentenced to 28 years in prison. For the next three years, she bounced from the shelter to foster families back to the shelter, and most recently she lived with two of her teachers from her school in Leesburg.
But starting next month, Cinthia, now 18, will lease an apartment with a friend. Mobile Hope will cover part of her rent until she gets a steady paycheck, which should come soon now that she landed a job at Leesburg coffee shop. “I love school, I’m excited for this new job—I might soon feel settled,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a positive thing.”
A Goal of Zero
While there may be some disagreement over how many homeless people live in Loudoun—and the best way to count them—most nonprofit and county leaders agree more work can be done.
Hodge said, if anything, the annual homeless count is a good reminder that, even in one of the nation’s wealthiest counties, not everyone has a safe place to stay at night.
“People are happily unaware that we have a homeless situation here,” she said. “We don’t have the street corners that Fairfax does, so it’s not in our face.”
She encourages people to give of their time or money to help their neighbors secure a place to live. “Find a nonprofit, get passionate about it and partner with them, whether as a donor or volunteer. Show up and make a difference.”
Hodge’s goal is to bring the homeless count down to zero. That’s not an unrealistic goal, she says. With the shelters, food pantries and other charities working in tandem, an individual or family can be put in temporary housing just long enough to get back on their feet.
“Instead of housing people in a big warehouse, let’s connect with them at the start of that crisis and divert that situation,” she said. “That would be what we call functional zero. That would be phenomenal.”