Advocates in Arlington, Virginia are celebrating a plan to open a year-round homeless services center in an office building recently purchased by the county.
Less thrilled are some of the residents of a condominium complex and several apartment buildings near the new shelter facility, planned for a site within walking distance of the Courthouse Metro station in the heart of downtown Arlington.
At meetings on the project, some neighbors have said they are worried that the homeless people seeking help or beds at the center will bring violent criminal histories along with them. It’s a concern advocates for the homeless are working hard to address.
“The community thinks they’re all sex offenders, and they’re not,” said Kathleen Sibert executive director for the nonprofit Arlington Street Peoples’ Assistance Network, or A-SPAN, which will run the new facility for the county.
The Arlington County Board approved purchase of the seven-story Thomas Building, 2020 14th Street North on Nov. 17 for just over $27 million, and closed on the deal three days later. The county plans to spend $42.6 million renovating the building over the next five years, and to open the shelter, which will occupy the second and third floors by November 1, 2014.
The shelter and homeless services facility will replace a winter emergency shelter that has operated down the street for the past 20 years. In addition, the redeveloped building will include floors of office space for Arlington County government, as well as retail shops and other commercial offices. Some of the current business tenants will stay, others will have to relocate.
The Homeless Services Center will address the needs of homeless Arlington County residents aged 18 to 75, seeking to move them toward permanent housing and self-sufficiency. The center will have 50 year-round beds and an additional 25 beds during the colder months from November through the end of March. There will be five extra beds for medically fragile residents who need nursing care.
Two well-attended meetings have been held by the board to gather community input on the plan, with a third scheduled for Jan 14. At the first two, Woodbury Heights condominium owners and other neighborhood residents lined up to discuss their opinions about the shelter.
Woodbury Heights condo association president Kenneth Robinson was among the most vocal critics of the plan. He expressed frustration with members of the board, who he said were not doing enough to take the safety of the neighborhood into account.
“They need to do something that shows the people there that Arlington County takes seriously the protection of the public,” Robinson said. At one of the meetings, he asked that homeless people seeking services at the facility be required to undergo criminal background checks. He said he wanted services denied to those with records of violent criminal behavior.
But Arlington County Police spokesman Dustin Sternbeck said the police would not permit such a policy. Professional staff at the shelter will be trained to report any suspicious behavior they observe. In Virginia, as in most states, criminal law requires that such a check be done only if there is probable cause based on observed behavior. Even then, it is a matter that only Virginia State Police handle, governed by strict rules.
Marsha Allgeier, Deputy County Manager, also responding to Robinson’s worries about criminals, noted that anyone released from jail has to report to his probation officer regularly, and that sex offenders must report their place of residence to police.
And not all neighborhood residents were worried by the plan. Some said that the nearby emergency shelter that has served the homeless in past winters has not been a source of problems. A police dispatcher at headquarters across the street from the building agreed, saying said that the existing shelter has not caused crime or disturbances.
County officials said they expect the center will serve both working and non-working homeless people, about 70 percent men and 30 percent women. Non-county residents will be allowed to stay up to 96 hours, and center staff will help those people connect with homeless services in their home jurisdictions.
In addition to providing emergency shelter and temporary housing to men and women in need, the center will develop an assessment plan geared toward getting clients into permanent housing.
The County Department of Human Services will provide substance abuse treatment, medical help, life skills training as well as links to job training and potential employment. The center will be open year-round with trained staff present around the clock. Curfew will be at 10 p.m., though exceptions will be made for clients who work night hours.
County Department of Human Services Communications Manager Kurt Larrick said that county officials want the center to be seen as a “good neighbor,” and are willing to listen to neighborhood residents’ concerns.
“I understand and empathize with their concerns,” Larrick said in an interview, “but I think we can work with them to make this work for everybody.”
Larrick added that the county has five other shelters; this will be the one for single adults. Homeless county residents with children as well as those with domestic violence problems, will be directed to other shelters whose staff and facilities are equipped to handle those issues.
He added that it has taken the county about 20 years to replace the emergency shelter, which was from the start seen as a temporary solution.
“It has taken that long to make this a reality,” Larrick said.
The county board had been eyeing this location in the heart of the city for the shelter and county offices, for some time. Then building became available, Larrick said.
“It’s the best sort of area for that need, and it’s just taken that long for the stars to align.”