A Peek Inside Fairfax, VA

written by Sam Batko
June 1, 2010

Last week there was a blog post in the Washington Post about Fairfax County, VA and the great work they’re doing using HPRP funds to prevent homelessness. To date, over 600 people have evaded homelessness in Fairfax.

The success in Fairfax County prompted some curiosity and excitement about the work being done there.

As a member of the Capacity Building Center at the Alliance, I’ve worked in Fairfax County to support their community leaders’ efforts to achieve this great success. For the last 18 months, the Alliance has worked to help the County transform their homeless assistance system into a Housing First/Rapid Re-housing model that focuses on housing-oriented strategies.

Fairfax County covers 395 square miles and has a population of over one million residents. With an Annual Median Income (AMI) of over $100,000, you might think that homelessness wouldn’t be a huge issue for the county – but high rental prices and low vacancy rates make the house-hunt hard for low-income families.

At the last point-in-time count, conducted on January 27, 2010, there were 1,544 people experiencing homelessness.

Luckily, the County’s taking action.

In 2007, the County approved the proposed Ten Year Plan to end homelessness; an implementation plan was completed in March 2008. The plan called for the creation of the Office to Prevent and End Homelessness and has since formed a Governing Board responsible for overseeing the progress towards the goal of ending homelessness by the end of 2018.

Ten task groups of dedicated stakeholders from across the community were formed to create specific work plans on different elements of the plan – those elements included intake and assessment, discharge planning, housing location, and transitional housing conversion. The task groups also work to define best practices, asking what works well in the community, how things can be changed to work more effectively, and how to codify those ideas into procedure manuals and trainings.

As for me, I served as a co-chair on the intake and assessment task group. In that role, my co-chairs and I convened a group of nonprofit and public stakeholders, including shelter, transitional housing, and permanent supportive housing staff as well as representatives from the Sheriff’s department, the County health department, and the department of family services.

Together, we examined the existing intake process and then developed a new assessment process focused on collecting housing and income-specific information from families and individuals. The new process helps caseworkers focus on housing as the primary solution to homelessness, move families and individuals through the intake process more efficiently, and creates a continuity of care so that all clients can be assured of receiving the same quality of services no matter where they access services.

And then, while all of the task groups were diligently planning for system-wide changes, the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program was announced.

The federal program was both a blessing and a burden. With improvements to the County’s homelessness system already being plotted, planning meetings for HPRP would only add another layer to the carefully considered strategy. Moreover, the County determined that much of the task groups’ work would need to be in place to most effectively use the new HPRP funds – adding a stricter deadline to the existing workload.

Still, thanks to the dedication and commitment of community leaders and key stakeholders, Fairfax County is using the HPRP funds to jumpstart their systems change process in addition to preventing and ending homelessness for its most vulnerable citizens.

I’ve been lucky enough to bear witness to the community’s great success. Fairfax County’s story demonstrates that real change is possible in the homeless assistance system and, that together, we can end homelessness.

This, after all, is what ending homelessness looks like.