Faith communities are once again opening their doors to Fairfax County’s homeless population this winter after a year-long hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The county’s Hypothermia Prevention Program, which began in 2005, will run from Nov. 28 through April.
As in past years, the service will be operated by FACETS, a nonprofit organization that helps individuals affected by poverty, hunger and homelessness. The program serves people in across the county and the City of Falls Church in partnership with the local government and more than 40 faith communities.
FACETS Executive Director Joe Fay notes that the move was inspired by faith partners who felt more comfortable opening their doors due to the state’s high vaccination levels.
“The pandemic continues to create greater need and complicates efforts to help meet those needs,” Fay acknowledged, adding that safety measures will remain in effect to protect staff, volunteers and guests.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the county to adapt the program last year, as space limitations and the age of many volunteers made the churches and other buildings used in the past less viable.
The county instead set up its own sites and used hotels, which provided a good alternative to congregate settings because they allowed for social distancing, reducing transmission of the virus, Tom Barnett, the director of the county’s Office to Prevent and End Homelessness told FFXnow.
“While most of us were told to stay home to avoid the virus, people experiencing homelessness did not have that option. Older adults and people with pre-existing health conditions were especially vulnerable,” Barnett said. “Fairfax County expanded shelter capacity with hotels through the pandemic to accommodate the increased demand for shelter.”
As the focus shifts back to congregate settings, nonprofit organizations have been able to hire more staff to sustain operations at their shelters.
Barnett says faith communities returning to the hypothermia prevention program is a “tremendous resource.”
After a brief dip to moderate transmission levels, COVID-19 cases appear to have returned to August levels. The county’s level of community transmission has returned to substantial.
Barnett noted that the program will attempt to increase social distancing, require masks for guests and staff, and increase the frequency of facility cleaning. Hotels will remain open through the winter in order to isolate, quarantine, and protect individuals and to reduce overcrowding in other shelters.
The program is open to any adult in need of immediate shelter.
Existing shelters that serve single adults and auxiliary programs through faith community partners run the program, which offers warm shelter, food, and other supportive services. FACETS will also offer case management for guests who wish to move into safe and stable housing.
The number of people who are homeless and unvaccinated remains a challenge, FACETS spokesperson Shawn Flaherty says. The organization plans to focus on vaccine availability and health education this year, especially as economic anxiety and food insecurity appear to be on the rise.
“The pandemic has created more economic strain which is impacting the county’s homeless population. Also, they struggle to get personal protective equipment, and it [has] been harder for them to connect with resources and basic needs,” Flaherty said.
COVID-19 vaccines will be available for all guests.
The organization plans to continue operating a shelter out of a hotel in Alexandria for individuals impacted by the pandemic.
Despite the constraints, the Hypothermia Prevention Program was able to serve an average of 215 guests per night last year.
Barnett does not expect increased demand this year due to the pandemic.
“We are confident that we have the resources and connections in place to serve our unsheltered neighbors this winter,” he said.
Photo courtesy FACETS
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