The Washington Post reports that the number of homeless school children in the Fairfax County public school system is likely to surpass 2,500 by the end of this school year. School officials say that homelessness effects children in all grades from kindergarten through high school, and at least 400 of these students are ‘unaccompanied youths’ who live without parents or guardians. This is a disturbing statistic in light of the fact that 2011 American Community Survey data identifies Fairfax County as the second wealthiest county in the United States with a median income of $106,000.
How did this happen? Fairfax County has taken some positive steps to end homelessness.
- In 2008 the Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted a 10 Year Plan and the Office to Prevent and End Homelessness was established.
- In 2011 a Blueprint for Housing was created to identify gaps within the County’s continuum of housing needs, set annual unit goals, and develop strategies to achieve those goals.
- The County has leveraged public resources through significant partnerships with the nonprofit community of affordable housing developers, human service providers and faith communities who bring valuable assets of expertise, volunteers and community support to addressing homelessness.
What has been the outcome of these actions?
Modest gains have been achieved through the alignment of existing housing resources (principally the federal housing choice voucher program) with the goals identified in the Blueprint. Some scattered site housing has been made available to serve extremely low income households with disabilities. In addition, housing locators have made good progress with landlords in securing housing for homeless or at risk households who might have otherwise been unable to secure rental housing due to credit history or a spotty employment record. But the root problem is the shortage of affordable housing options for households in Fairfax County making less than 50% of the area median income.
What can be done?
- Provide sufficient resources to achieve the objectives of the plan, with emphasis on developing and preserving affordable units. While elected officials have unanimously endorsed the plan, the Blueprint for Housing has been level funded – and we might add inadequately funded – for three years.
- Seek opportunities to develop housing on publicly owned land that is vacant or underutilized. Existing shelters should be evaluated to determine whether additional density that provides permanent housing could be supported. Look creatively at existing county facilities to see whether is would be appropriate to co-locate housing units. Arlington is developing housing at the new community center at Arlington Mills, and Alexandria included housing at the Fire Station at Potomac Yards.
- Review land use policies and zoning regulations that inhibit strategies to develop more housing and make changes that facilitate the development of affordable units.
Homelessness is a reality throughout Northern Virginia, not just in Fairfax County, and as indicated here, the County has taken some positive first steps, but much more needs to be done. The challenges to providing affordable housing and addressing growing homelessness are significant, and the County has acknowledged their role in addressing the issue and identified ending homelessness as a priority. Now we ask that Fairfax consider the appropriate level of funding for this priority and include it in their FY2014 budget, because in the second wealthiest county in the country, over 2,000 school children should not be homeless.
Article by Michelle Krocker
Executive Director, Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance