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Fairfax County to clear Reston homeless encampment, open temporary shelter

An encampment has taken shape in recent years near the Sunrise Assisted Living in Reston (staff photo by Fatimah Waseem)

A tent encampment housing between 20 and 35 individuals in the woods between Inova’s emergency room and Sunrise Assisted Living Center in Reston may soon fold.

Fairfax County officials hope to open up a temporary overflow shelter in a government building in the Reston Town Center North area to accommodate the people who’ve been living in the tents.

“No Trespassing” signs are set to go up around the encampment, which is located on county property, in the coming weeks, as the county’s hypothermia shelters close their doors for the 2023-2024 winter season on Sunday (March 31).

The Reston encampment is the largest one in the county, according to Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn. Cornerstones — the nonprofit that runs Reston’s Embry Rucker Community Shelter — and its outreach teams plan to discuss their options with residents as the transition is phased in over the coming weeks.

“It’s really an unmanaged campground,” Alcorn said yesterday (Wednesday) in a call with media. “You know, if you walk through and talk to people, that’s really how its functioning at this point. So, I have concerns about, frankly, the safety of the folks living there now and the personal safety.”

Many details of the overflow shelter, including when it will open and how many people it can fit, remain to be determined, but it’s intended to help wind down activities in the encampment that has occupied the hill for years.

In some cases, neighbors have complained about the encampment, though data on how many police calls have been placed wasn’t immediately available.

According to Alcorn, there have been issues at the Reston Regional Library and reports of break-ins in some of the surrounding communities, but he cautioned that it would be “unfair” to attribute all incidents to the encampment.

Sunrise recently put up a fence around their property, creating a buffer between their property and the encampment.

Alcorn said he asked staff for an “effective and humane” plan for winding down the camp. He emphasized that its future is already in limbo because that property and the rest of Reston Town Center North are slated for major redevelopment. Plans call for a new Embry Rucker shelter and a new library, though an earlier agreement with a private developer fell through.

The encampment first began as a handful of tents but has since grown substantially. Reston Strong, a local nonprofit organization, began offering support to the area, providing food, tents and other supplies.

The organization launched a Neighbors in Tents campaign in 2022 to raise awareness about homelessness in Fairfax County. A temporary tent community was set up in front of the North County Governmental Center (1801 Cameron Glen Drive) as an alternative after the county’s hypothermia and COVID-19 emergency shelters closed for the season.

The organization called for permanent solutions to address homelessness in the county, which saw a 10% increase in people experiencing homelessness from 2022 to 2023. The results of the county’s most recent point-in-time count — an annual survey of the number of people without housing — are expected to be released in May.

Reston Strong says it welcomes the plans for a temporary overflow shelter to assist “our most vulnerable residents,” but it still has “many unaddressed concerns and questions.”

“We have not received answers from the county about when the shelter will be ready or if there is enough capacity for the Hill residents and those already in hypothermia, but we have been told via a letter from Supervisor Alcorn that no trespassing sign will be posted and we are not allowed to set up new tents,” Reston Strong organizer Sarah Selvaraj-Dsouza said. “The Hill will be closed in the near future for the planned land swap with Inova. We are hoping for a timely resolution that meets everyone’s needs.”

Alcorn said the logistics of the overflow shelter are still being ironed out.

News of a plan to clear the encampment comes as the county’s Redevelopment and Housing Authority prepares to implement a $20 million agreement that will provide housing for those in need, specifically individuals with serious mental illnesses.

Starting in May, the county will receive 300 new supportive rental assistance vouchers for residents over three years and three new staff positions to manage the program.

Alcorn says both initiatives are the beginning of important steps to addressing chronic homelessness.

It’s going to make a big dent in the problem,” he said of the voucher program.

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