Prince William County’s Social Services Department offers a number of programs for the homeless. Its beautiful website states that the Coordinated Entry System Hotline is the “first call” someone with a housing crisis in Prince William should make. I gave them a call to ask a couple of questions and was immediately put on hold.
In addition to Prince William government’s initiatives, a number of private not-for-profit groups also help the unsheltered homeless. Woodbridge Help Us Grow Strong (HUGS) is a group I have worked with for a number of years. They just opened a new office in Woodbridge. I stopped by to check it out and chat with the ladies who manage this program.
Executive director Terry Twomey, public relations director Annmarie Landry, and counseling services director Toinette Rose-Neube were happy to chat. Each of the groups in Prince William specializes in some population or issue. HUGS specializes in single unsheltered homeless people, of which they estimate there are 400. HUGS currently serves around 50 of those.
Twomey said the biggest battle the group faces is public policy regarding affordable housing. That is the “sweet spot” HUGS has targeted: a community of smaller homes (often called tiny homes) to take the unsheltered homeless out of the camps and off the street to start a transition to a better life. That, coupled with counseling, health care, resume-writing services, a job search, and re-integration into the larger community, are all part of the plan. The group needs a couple of acres on which to build the homes, as well as the money, volunteer labor and materials for actual construction.
Twomey shared that public policy on land use, zoning and construction makes affordable housing in general and the community that HUGS envisions specifically difficult to achieve. Amazon’s expansion in Arlington is going to drive housing prices up. The working poor, minimum-wage workers, and others struggling for whatever reason are going to be squeezed out of the market. We can either wait for the inevitable increase in the unsheltered homeless population or we can proactively address it.
HUGS also provides meals to the unsheltered homeless in eastern Prince William every Saturday at 11 a.m. next to Caton’s Auto Repair Shop. I stopped by to say “hi” to Kathy Shuster, the Woodbridge outreach coordinator, and her husband, Ed. I watched men and women, black and white, young and old enjoy a nice buffet served by an army of volunteers, look for fresh clothes, and pick up toiletries and snacks. It felt like a neighborhood pot luck. If you would like to help out, stop by the outreach first to see what is going on. You may then decide how to contribute.
As I finish this column, I am still on “hold.” I’ve been waiting over an hour to talk to someone at the Coordinated Entry System Hotline. I couldn’t leave a message because the “press 1 to leave a message” feature doesn’t work. The unsheltered homeless usually use “burner” phones supported by cards providing minutes. Charging is a problem because they can’t do that in the camps. As I waited for someone to answer, or even to leave a voice mail, I wondered what this experience would feel like for some unsheltered mom with a child or two clinging to her. I imagined what it must be like watching minutes being used up while a battery continues to drain.
If Prince William government is serious about helping the unsheltered homeless, someone has to answer the phone.
Several other great groups are tackling some piece of the unsheltered homeless puzzle. If you support one, feel free to mention it and add a link in the comments section of this column on insidenova.com.
Al Alborn is a political and social activist in Prince William County. His column appears every other week. You can learn more about Al at www.alborn.net.