With its quaint brick-paved streets, historic buildings and gracious gardens, Alexandria, Virginia, offers visitors and residents a welcome respite from the bustle of nearby Washington, D.C. But look closer, and you find some of the harsher realities of life in Alexandria too.
Tucked behind the blooming crepe myrtle on North Henry Street is one of Northern Virginia’s largest homeless shelters. With 80 residential beds and a winter emergency shelter program, Carpenter’s Shelter offers a haven from the struggles of survival in a wealthy suburb.
Even in a beautiful city such as Alexandria, there are people who are fleeing abuse or fighting to overcome mental illness or addiction. Some of them are homeless. There are also people who are homeless simply because they cannot manage to earn enough to rent a place to live. Of the 352 homeless people in Alexandria included in the 2012 Point-in-Time Count of Homeless Persons in the Metropolitan Washington Region (see accompanying story) 40 percent of homeless single men and women and 86 percent of homeless parents were working.
“Some have a job, they take care of their finances, look out for their children, everything is in place, but they’ve got nowhere to live, said Kelly Andreae, the director of development at Carpenter’s Shelter. “Affordable housing is what we really struggle with.”
Carpenter’s Shelter helps more than one thousand men, women, and children every year, offering everything from beds to guidance, education, and life-skills training. Each new resident at the shelter is assigned to a caseworker and required to participate in evening programs. The organization says that 90 percent of the residents who complete the program do not end up back on the street.
Part of the program’s success is tied to helping homeless residents hone their skills so they can earn more money, moving from minimum wage jobs to living-wage jobs.
But challenges remain. The 2012 Point-in-Time count found an increase in the number of homeless adults employed in Alexandria over the past year, but a decline in their gross monthly incomes.
While most of the working homeless claimed monthly earnings of $1,000 a month or more, they fell short of what they needed to afford housing, the survey found.
In Alexandria, as in many other suburban areas, families face particular difficulties. Apartments with more than one bedroom can be especially hard to find at an affordable price. The fair market rent for a modest modest two-bedroom apartment in Virginia is $1,054 according to the Out of Reach 2012 report published by the nonprofit made by National Low Income Housing Coalition.
To be able to afford such an apartment without paying more than 30 percent of income on housing, a household must earn $3,512 monthly. The salary works out to an hourly wage of $20.26, far more than Virginia’s minimum wage of $7.25.
Facing such challenges, families tend to stay longer at Carpenter’s Shelter than single men and women. Most homeless families remain at the shelter from six to nine months.
That being said, the 2012 annual homeless count did show evidence that the work being done to address homelessness in Alexandria may be having an impact. The city’s homeless population declined from 416 in 2011 to 352 in 2012.
The reduction was largely due to efforts to link homeless people with sources of affordable housing, thanks in part to the efforts of two housing locator staffers working with Carpenter’s residents and other emergency shelter clients in the city.
“We have tied them to people that could help them get housing,” said Carpenter’s Shelter director Lissette S. Bishins.
But without a steady supply of additional low-cost units, Bishins said, she doubted that Alexandria will be able to fully address its homeless problem.
To make her point, she quoted from the 2012 Point-in-Time count:
“With anticipated future loss of affordable housing due to development, the numbers of persons experiencing homelessness could remain stagnant, but is likely to increase without deep
subsidies, case management services, and continued prevention and rapid re-housing assistance,” she read.
Then she added: “That is exactly how I would put it.”