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Fairfax County bolsters extreme heat resources for unsheltered residents

All of Fairfax County’s public libraries have been designated as cooling centers during extreme heat events (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

As homelessness increases in Fairfax County, affected residents can use revamped county resources to cope with extreme summer heat.

The county will activate its extreme heat response when the National Weather Service issues a heat advisory, excessive heat watch or excessive heat warning.

As part of the response, 47 county facilities are now designated as cooling centers and will provide supplies, such as water, sunscreen, insect repellant, body wipes, and bus passes, according to a presentation to the Board of Supervisors’ health and human services committee last week.

“Like in previous years, all county facilities that are open to the public can be used by residents to come in for cooling,” Jill Clark, health and human services policy and planning manager with Fairfax County Neighborhood and Community Services, said in the presentation.

The cooling center facilities include all libraries and community centers. In those locations, staff will be prepared to welcome residents in need, and there will be supplies and seating in designated spaces.

Supplies will also be available at shelters and drop-in centers and from outreach workers. Most of the supplies are single-use and/or lightweight and portable. The decision to supply single-use items, among other parts of the plan, came from feedback from a September 2022 survey of 81 unsheltered residents.

“In the responses, you could hear the challenges they experienced both in terms of discomfort and real negative health effects from the extreme heat, including nausea, shortness of breath, exhaustion, asthma attacks, inability to eat as well as sunburns and rashes,” said Tom Barnett, deputy director of housing and community development in the Office to Prevent and End Homelessness.

The county will also aim to better notify unsheltered residents about heat advisories by using a new dedicated channel of Fairfax Alerts.

“We learned through the unsheltered residents survey that most respondents actually have a phone with internet access, and actually prefer getting information about resources and heat alerts via text messages and emails,” Barnett said.

To help residents get to cooling centers, drop-in centers or weather-related overflow sites, the county will offer free Fairfax Connector bus passes in the form of 3,000 postcards that cover two rides each. In addition, the county will provide pre-loaded Transportation Options, Programs & Services (TOPS) cards to assist unsheltered residents who cannot access Fairfax Connector buses.

These changes came out of recommendations from a workgroup that formed in August 2022 in response to concerns raised by the Fairfax County NAACP. The board received the workgroup’s recommendations in a March memorandum.

“The work group and its four committees included a robust membership across many different county departments as well as key partners and representatives from the homeless service providers, the faith community and advocates,” Barnett said.

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