Homeless In Arlington
As the pandemic lingers, home has become a workplace, a classroom and a refuge from a deadly virus. But what if you don't have a home?
A nondescript van wends its way through Arlington’s streets in the predawn hours of what is shaping up to be another unbearably hot summer day. The driver, David Ordonez, pulls over to the side of Clarendon Boulevard after spotting a man pushing a shopping cart up a hill in Rosslyn.
Ordonez is the assistant director of outreach and the day program at PathForward (formerly A-SPAN, it recently adopted a new name), the nonprofit that runs the county’s Homeless Services Center and a host of related programs. The man with the shopping cart is one of his “regulars”—residents who sleep on the streets, mostly due to mental illness.
Hopping out of the van, Ordonez calls to the man by name in Spanish. They talk for a minute or so, and the man accepts bottles of water and two bagged meals before resuming his trek up the hill. Ordonez climbs back into the van, secure in the knowledge that “Felix” is safe on this day, and heads toward a church where several homeless people sleep in the shadows of Turnberry Tower, one of Arlington’s most luxe properties.
For millions of Americans, “home” has become a sanctuary in the time of Covid—a safe place to work, study and retreat from the dangers of a killer virus. But for those living on the street, in temporary shelters or on the razor’s edge of poverty, the pandemic has introduced new layers of hardship. At a time when our lives have contracted and we spend more time caring for ourselves and those we love, who is caring for those most at risk?
Homelessness is not easy to measure, largely because the people who fall into that demographic are so transient. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a nationwide point-in-time count found 580,466 people experiencing homelessness in America as of January 2020. Most of them (70%) were individuals, while the remainder were families with children.
Some good news: Arlington County’s latest point-in-time count, conducted on Jan. 27 of this year, showed an overall decrease (14%) in homelessness, from 199 people in 2020 to 171 in 2021. “This represents the lowest count seen over the past 11 years, and the lowest in the past four years for unsheltered persons,” says Triina Van, Continuum of Care coordinator with the Arlington County Department of Human Services.
The picture for those who are chronically homeless in Arlington is less positive. That number rose from 20 people in 2020 to 35 in 2021. Chronic homelessness is defined as individuals with disabilities (including mental illness, physical impairments and/or substance abuse disorders) who have been continuously homeless for at least a year, or who have experienced homelessness at least four times in the last three years.
“Alan,” 65, was never a part of that long-term cohort, but the two months he spent homeless was an experience he won’t forget. “I was miserable living on the streets,” he says emphatically. “It was awful. You look in the windows of people’s apartments and you see people having dinner, having fun. Sometimes I just wanted to knock on a door and ask to be let in.”
In August, Alan was preparing to move from PathForward’s shelter in Courthouse to an assisted living home. A year had passed since he was taken by ambulance from his previous South Arlington apartment to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, unable to walk three steps without gasping for air. Years of addiction to pills and alcohol had left him barely able to function and months behind on his rent. Though he had worked intermittently at Comcast and a photo developing company, Alan had reached a point where he was unable to do much more than drink and get high.
After his arrival at the hospital, doctors implanted a defibrillator in Alan’s chest and prepared him to return home, but he knew he couldn’t go back to an apartment he couldn’t afford, and he didn’t want to face an early death. He asked a social worker for help and was referred to Franny Mack, a case manager at PathForward specializing in senior housing.
“[Alan] is a rare bird,” Mack says. “He wanted the help. But when he first came in, I thought, Oh Lord!”
“Yeah, I was looking at my path and knew something was really wrong,” Alan says. “I had holes in my pockets. I was going to end up on the streets. I was so skinny. All I thought was that I really wanted a beer.”
Working toward sobriety and recovering from surgery, Alan was shuttled to various medical appointments by PathForward staff and housed in the shelter’s medical respite area. “Your needs are being taken care of,” he says of his time there, “not your wants.”
Packing his few belongings for his next move, he shows off photos of his family, with whom he was recently reunited. “They forgave me,” he says with joy. “They are coming by and calling.”
Opposite the snapshots of his smiling children and grandchildren, one picture stands out in stark contrast. It’s a photo of Alan propped against a fence, emaciated and clearly intoxicated. The look on his face is one of complete surrender to his addiction. “I keep that there as a reminder,” he says.
Most Arlingtonians are unfamiliar with the intricacies of the county’s expansive Continuum of Care system, which is designed to help people avoid homelessness and find shelter when they need it. The goal of nonprofits like PathForward is to transition those at risk of homelessness to temporary housing, and ultimately, permanent housing. Outreach efforts to vulnerable individuals and families are ongoing. There are supports for people in crisis; referral services for emergency food, rental assistance and health care; and, for those who need it, long-term housing solutions.
Such services are a lifeline for county residents like Russell Purrington, 47, who lives just off Glebe Road, across from the CVS where he works as a manager. The studio apartment he shares with his cat—a permanent supportive housing unit provided by PathForward—is decorated with family photographs and a Kikkoman soy sauce bucket discarded by the Chinese restaurant across the street, now home to an aloe plant on the windowsill. “I couldn’t let it go into the trash,” he says.
Born in Alaska, Purrington moved to Arlington in the early ’90s to be near his mother and sisters. He attended Northern Virginia Community College and worked as an arborist for many years until a combination of drugs, alcohol and mental illness led him to homelessness. He barely survived two drug overdoses in one day, but those events left him with short-term memory loss.
“I was disabled by my own hands,” says Purrington, an avid gamer in his spare time. Now he is proud of his job and the progress he has made. “I stay focused. I get enough sleep, show up to work on time and do my duties.”
The federal eviction moratorium was a welcome relief for many who lost their jobs or struggled financially during Covid. In the early days of the pandemic, most evictions for unpaid rent were put on hold. But as of the end of July, only a fraction of the $46.5 billion in rental assistance approved by Congress had been disbursed, and on Aug. 26, the Supreme Court put an end to the federal eviction freeze. Nationwide, more than 15 million people are now living in households that collectively owe as much as $20 billion in back rent, according to the Aspen Institute.
In August, Gov. Ralph Northam signed a budget bill that restored Virginia eviction protections through June 30, 2022. This was good news for those at risk of homelessness, but less so for owners of small apartment buildings or low-income houses. Many tenants are still months behind on rent, relying on the moratorium to stay housed while their landlords remain empty-handed. Renters who are undocumented or unsure of how to access federal or local aid are falling even farther behind.
Andrew Schneider is the executive director of Arlington Thrive, a nonprofit that provides “same-day, emergency financial assistance to county residents who experience sudden financial crisis such as temporary unemployment or illness.” He says the need arising from the pandemic has been “unlike anything we have seen in our 45 years, including assistance during the Great Recession and other challenges.
“Not only was the scale different,” Schneider says, “but the response was different, because we had additional funding from the county and the federal government. We were able to give more money to more people.”
Arlington Thrive has used county, state and federal funds to help struggling renters pay down the back rent they owe, providing stopgap assistance to about 2,000 households since the start of the pandemic. Mindful of the strain on property owners, the nonprofit also reached out to individual landlords and the landlord association in Northern Virginia. “It’s in our best interest to work with the entire safety net,” Schneider says, “so no one is facing financial catastrophe. Homelessness is the failure of the safety net.”
Child care has been another pain point for families facing pandemic disruptions to their normal work, parenting and school routines. “About 80% of our families became unemployed or had a reduction in hours in March 2020,” says Christina Armstrong, chief philanthropic partnerships officer for Bridges to Independence, another local nonprofit focused on ending homelessness.
Bridges operates Sullivan House, an emergency shelter that accepts both individuals and families, and provides services such as workforce and youth development, financial counseling and housing placement. “When the world shut down, [these families] were not in a position to work from home,” Armstrong says. “Many more of them ended up not being able to work because children were out of school. One of the biggest barriers to employment during Covid has been the lack of affordable child care.”
According to Michael Stewart, Arlington’s deputy chief financial officer, the county’s crisis response to the pandemic has been robust. Arlington was allocated approximately $150 million in federal Covid-19 aid through a variety of grant programs, and by late August had disbursed around $87 million. Of that amount, some $23 million was channeled to programs serving vulnerable individuals with a demonstrated need. From July 2020 to June 2021, the county also spent more than $6 million in local funding on emergency housing support, food assistance and other Covid-driven forms of aid not covered by federal grant dollars. Most of those funds were allocated to partner organizations like PathForward.
Operating in the time of Covid has forced the nonprofits serving our area’s most vulnerable residents to change almost every aspect of their work.
“In the early days of the pandemic, clients were taking it in stride. They were dealing with much more immediate needs, such as where they were going to sleep,” says Pam Mitchell, executive director of New Hope Housing, which provides a variety of housing and support services throughout Northern Virginia, including Bailey’s Shelter and Supportive Housing in Bailey’s Crossroads, and the Residential Program Center on Columbia Pike. “Covid just wasn’t at the top of their list of concerns. That changed as time went on.”
As the pandemic took hold, she says, the shelters set aside rooms for people to quarantine and initiated “head to toe” sleeping for those sharing rooms.
Doorways President Diana Ortiz, whose organization “creates pathways out of homelessness, domestic violence and sexual assault,” says her team similarly had to recalibrate—moving to what she calls a “non-congregate setting.”
Doorways’ existing safe house and family home lacked adequate space for social distancing, so the nonprofit began housing clients in hotels or safe apartments, all the while noting a disturbing uptick in domestic violence. “We were seeing much more dangerous examples of abuse,” Ortiz says. “We paid for 12 hotel rooms for 365 nights.”
The county has seen a 113% increase in reports of domestic violence since the pandemic began, confirms Van, of the Arlington County Department of Human Services.
The shift to hoteling has provided some takeaways, Ortiz says. Doorways discovered that hotel rooms are a better setting for families with children because they offer more privacy and autonomy. (Plus, she chuckles, the hotel Wi-Fi is admittedly better than the shelter’s.) But there have been downsides, too. “We lost some of the camaraderie that survivors gravitate toward,” she says, “and a lot of our group programming had to be paused. Our staff had to learn how to serve clients when they weren’t all in one place.”
Betsy Frantz was only weeks into her new job as CEO of PathForward when Covid sent Arlington into lockdown in March of 2020. “There were no protocols in place for [a pandemic],” she says, looking back. “We literally built the plane while flying it. Everybody played the role we needed them to play, and that’s what got us through.”
Frantz and others point to Kasia Shaw, PathForward’s senior director of medical services, as a guiding light. A nurse practitioner who attended West Point, Shaw has worked hard to educate clients about adjusting their behavior to avoid contracting Covid. Many days, she can be found riding along with Ordonez on his early morning outreach calls.
“We connect people to cancer care, check sugar levels in diabetics, even take people to receive the Covid vaccine,” Shaw says. “We address chronic conditions that could be prevented if people were housed, including a lot of foot care because so many are on their feet all day.”
Lately, the emphasis has shifted heavily to Covid prevention and testing. “High-risk individuals were sent to hotels provided by the county while we were busy with contact tracing and tracking test results,” Shaw says. “It was all-consuming, seven days a week. We had to stop providing a monthly foot care clinic, and dental services were put on hold.”
It’s been an unending pivot, Frantz says. Early in the pandemic when case counts were rising, PathForward’s Homeless Services Center went into “decompression” mode. Residents no longer shared rooms. Some were moved into classrooms, or even the dining room. At times, there was no day program—meaning no outside shelter access for those wishing to shower, do laundry and receive other services. Meals were provided in bags or individual containers.
The rise of the delta variant in late summer 2021 sent the shelter back into lockdown. Frantz was clearly unhappy with the adjustments, even though they were necessary. “These were the things we could provide that make people feel human,” she says, “but we couldn’t do it and keep them safe. That was just hard on all of us. We saw everyone’s stress increase.”
It’s the success stories that keep Frantz and her colleagues motivated. Covid has made their jobs more difficult, but the end goal remains the same: Empowering people—to quote PathForward’s tagline—from streets to stability.
Kevin, 44 (who shares only his first name), has made that journey. After years of substance abuse and living on the street, he’s been in supportive housing in Arlington for nearly a decade. “The church is what worked for me,” he says. “It is stronger than my addiction.”
He still recalls his first night in his own apartment, which he secured with help from PathForward and New Hope Housing. He slept on the carpet in the bedroom and was happy. “It was the first place of my own, ever in my life,” he says, “and a nonsmoking building, too!”
These days Kevin walks through Arlington looking for people who are homeless, telling them where they can find shelter, food and other forms of assistance. He’s made it his personal mission. “I freely give back to the community where I used to be,” he says with conviction. “I have freedom now.”
Over the course of her life, Sheridan P. Jackson has lived in her own place in Washington, D.C., been incarcerated, had an apartment in Arlington, spent time in a shelter and bunked with a friend. Through it all, she raised five children who earned college degrees. At various times, she was an alcoholic and a victim of domestic violence.
A visit to PathForward in 2013 turned her life around. “They didn’t have any beds available and I had to sleep on the floor, but that was okay,” says Jackson, now 51. “They had clothes I could wear, a place to take a shower. I could eat regularly.”
Staff helped move her into an apartment at Sibert House, a permanent supportive housing residence in Westover, designed to help individuals overcome substance abuse and mental illness and attain their goals.
Today Jackson is taking online courses with hopes of landing a job as an administrative assistant.
“This is a stepping-stone for me,” she says. “I am learning to reacclimate myself. I tend the community garden in back and do laundry right here in the building. It’s really quiet. The neighbors are cool. I finally have a sense of peace.”
Tamar Abrams is semiretired, working as a communications consultant, enjoying life in Falls Church City and worrying about mostly everything.
Arlington’s Safety Net
The nonprofits below are part of Arlington County’s “Continuum of Care” for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
PathForward (formerly A-SPAN) runs the county’s Homeless Services Center in Courthouse, offering emergency shelter, medical treatment, food assistance, job training, rapid rehousing, permanent supportive housing and other services. During its 2020 fiscal year, the nonprofit housed 159 people, served 29,850 meals, provided 810 medical visits and sheltered 422 individuals.
Bridges to Independence (formerly the Arlington-Alexandria Coalition for the Homeless) operates Sullivan House, Arlington County’s largest emergency shelter for families. It currently serves about 500 individuals, including children.
Doorways (formerly Doorways for Women & Families) provides support, shelter and safe housing for people impacted by domestic violence and sexual abuse. It helps more than 200 people per year, including parents and children.
New Hope Housing offers various housing and support services throughout Northern Virginia, including Bailey’s Shelter and Supportive Housing in Bailey’s Crossroads, and the Residential Program Center (RPC) on Columbia Pike. In 2019, it served more than 1,632 people, including 450 in permanent or transitional housing.
National Capital Treatment & Recovery (formerly Phoenix Houses of the Mid-Atlantic) provides transitional housing for individuals recovering from substance abuse. During its 2020 fiscal year the nonprofit served 1,225 patients in its residential programs.
Arlington Thrive offers same-day emergency financial assistance to Arlington residents facing a financial crisis that could lead to eviction and homelessness. During its most recent fiscal year, Thrive provided just over $5.2 million to roughly 2,000 households. More than 90% of those funds were used for rental assistance.
→ Arlington’s Affordable Housing Crisis
→ Why Ending Homelessness Isn’t That Easy