Why Ending Homelessness Isn’t That Easy
Housing is only part of the equation in Arlington.
Christina Vandercook hasn’t made that climb, but she’s found stability. She, her fiancé and their first son bounced between relatives before they ended up sleeping in their car on the Alexandria waterfront. “Seeing your child sleeping in the back seat of a car, knowing you had nowhere to go, it’s hard,” says Vandercook, 33, who has learning disabilities.
They later moved to a Rosslyn apartment where mice were rampant. She remembers shoving her fiancé’s Rocky movies under the door to try to blockade the rodents from getting in.
‘By the time she became pregnant with her second son, Vandercook and her family turned to Doorways for help. In August, after working in various food-service jobs, she was preparing to start a full-time position with a nursing home that pays $10 per hour, plus benefits. They now live in an affordable housing unit in Ballston, where she pays just $349 of the $1,100-per-month rent (which includes parking and water).
With her fiancé unemployed and helping with the kids, living on her wages alone would be impossible without the safety net, she says. “I get frustrated. I’m working my @#$% off and your paycheck is right out of your hand.”
Still, Vandercook is grateful for the support she received at Doorways. The nonprofit helped her find a job-training program that led to certification in food handling. Financial education has taught her budgeting skills. And emergency aid has kept her family—and countless others like hers—from falling back into homelessness.
Arlington’s nonprofits have also launched various youth outreach programs in an effort to break the cycle of despair. Sullivan House runs a lemonade stand to teach kids entrepreneurship, along with leadership clubs, tutoring and other programs. “We keep introducing them to another way of living,” says Kelly of Bridges to Independence. “The objective is to at least plant the seed. We’ll continue to water it.”
As the summer of 2017 came to an end, Clark was planning a gathering at his home—in part, a memorial service to honor the relatives who died while he was under that bridge and out of the family picture. He was giddy at the idea of being the host, rather than lingering after a party at someone else’s house with hopes of spending the night on a warm couch: “I mean, me, a guy that’s been homeless for so long, got a place.”
Celestine and her family have found housing, although what she longs for most is a paper, as she calls the immigration documentation that’s yet to materialize. She’d rather her children see their parents working full-time and taking financial responsibility for the family.
Julie has resolved to make good choices and to avoid the kinds of enticements that could lead her back to homelessness. Bridges gave her the chance to live in a neighborhood with better influences around her son, she says, and it taught her to be a better mother.
“The person has to want the help. It starts with self, then it’s the resources, then it’s back to self,” Julie says. “It took me a long time to get there, but I’m here.”
The stoplight turns red and a bedraggled man sidles up, his cardboard sign announcing he’s homeless and hungry. For Lucinda Robb and hundreds of other Arlington residents, it’s a reckoning. On the one hand, Robb serves on the board of the Arlington Food Assistance Center and donates to numerous charities. She wonders whether handing over her spare change is really going to help. On the other hand, she says, her children are in the back seat, worried. “Mommy, mommy! We have to do something for that poor man!”
County officials, police and the social workers who know many of Arlington’s homeless by name say many (or even most) of those panhandlers are not, in fact, homeless. Some aren’t even from Arlington. Scott Miller, senior director of development at A-SPAN, remembers following one such person from an intersection and watching the man hop in his car and drive away.
So what is the right course of action? Instead of giving money, Miller hands out a laminated card listing where to get help in Arlington, including the shelter his organization runs. He encourages others to do the same. Stacks of the cards are available at the Homeless Services Center in Courthouse, and at local library branches. Social workers and other officials also suggest volunteering or donating directly to local agencies that help the homeless. For a list of such organizations, check out our Guide to Giving on page 62, or visit
Freelance writer Tamara “Tammy” Lytle wrote about ADHD in the September/October issue.