Homeless Center: Residents, County Still at Odds as Permitting Process Begins

The Arlington County Board will vote on whether to allow a year-round homeless service center in Courthouse later this month.

Residents of the Woodbury Heights condominiums in the Courthouse community began mobilizing in November 2011 to oppose Arlington County's plan to acquire a seven-story office building and convert two floors to a year-round homeless service center.

They showed up at meeting after meeting, voicing concerns over security and, in some cases, the potential effect on their property values. Elected officials assured them that all they were doing at that point was voting on whether to pursue the acquisition of the Thomas Building at 2020 14th St. N. They would have time to voice their concerns about the homeless center during a permitting process later on.

They recall the county saying it looked forward to public discussion — after all, that's part of the Arlington Way.

But the discussion the county is having and the one the residents have waited for are two different things.

"If they were looking for public discussion. … That discussion was not whether to have the homeless center here. It was window dressings," resident Jesse Swart told Patch.

"I don't want to sound like a jerk," he said. "...They're putting this in our neighborhood. However, we are not the volunteers. We are not the charity. And yet, we will have to deal with their overflow."

'Bait and Switch'

Swart stood before the Arlington Planning Commission late Thursday and asked about the metrics that would determine the success of the move. Would the county measure its potential affect on property values? Would the county guarantee funding in case federal dollars dried up? And what about crime? If the "experiment," as he called it, failed to meet its stated goals, would it be terminated?

The commission wasn't in a place to answer. It was basically asked to approve a staff recommendation saying the county could allow itself to house people on two floors of the office building, although commissioners did ask that the zoning administrator put in writing her reasoning that it could.

"To some extent, it's bait and switch," Ken Robinson, president of the Woodbury Heights Condominium Association, told Patch.

Read more:

  • Planning Commission: Year-Round Homeless Center Fits Comprehensive Plan
  • Arlington County Closes on $27M Purchase of Thomas Building

Advocates for ending homelessness in Arlington spoke out in favor of the move, though their words were equally outside of the scope of what the commission was asked to consider.

Arlington's 100 Homes Campaign, the advocates said, has housed about 50 people in the past year. A year-round center would replaced the dilapidated building that currently houses the emergency winter shelter about a block away. And that, they said, hasn't exhibited the kinds of problems that Woodbury Heights residents worry about.

Kathy Sibert, the executive director of the Arlington Street People's Assistance Network, which will operate the new center, late Thursday began organizing a trip to the Thomas Building at night so that she and her colleagues could get a feel for what could be seen from within and from outside at night.

"We're not heartless," she said. "We do understand their concerns."

From the advocates' perspective, they've been working with their prospective neighbors and the county, adjusting things over the past few months thanks to a series of community meetings held at nearby Key Elementary School.

"When it comes to crime, the best deterrent is having a well-managed center," Sibert said. "Our commitment is to have a well-run facility."

In most cases, she said, A-SPAN staff and volunteers can diffuse a situation before it escalates. Most problems stem from health issues — mental or physical — or substance abuse issues, she said. She cited the proximity of the Police Department and Sheriff's Office as another helpful factor, though the Woodbury Heights residents typically haven't been impressed by that argument.

Still, Sibert said, "We want to continue to be a good neighbor."

'Just Like You And Me'

The current emergency winter shelter does not have security cameras or a security guard. Following the meetings at Key School, the plans for the year-round center now include adding exterior cameras on the building and an on-site security guard from 4 p.m. to midnight daily.

But the neighbors want 24-hour security. They remember being told by county board member Mary Hynes that they had a right to be safe in their own homes. Resident January Holt, holding a stack of crime information, cited cases of assault, forced entry, drunk in public, fights and walking naked down the street over a 17-year period in the area near the current emergency winter shelter.

"We are asking for 24-hour security," Holt told the commission. "I am not going to put my safety or my neighbor's safety at the mercy of a volunteer. … That is not acceptable. Even the Courthouse has security."

Sibert told the commission that A-SPAN has been providing services to the homeless in Arlington for 21 years, including mental health and substance abuse services. And the best way to provide those services is in a central place where everyone is under one roof, she said.

Earlier Thursday, A-SPAN moved an elderly man out of the woods and into permanent housing, she said. He suffers from dementia and other illnesses.

"It happens to so many people just like you and me," Sibert said. "One of my classmates from Yorktown High School is homeless on the streets of Arlington. It does not mean you are a criminal. It just means that you are without a home. So to end homelessness, we have to get these homeless citizens into housing."

Meanwhile, Woodbury Heights has seen its turnover rate double — twice as many people sold their units last year as the year before, Robinson said. Others are moving out and leasing their apartments: The non-owner-occupied rate has escalated from 26 percent to 38 percent, he said, and the higher that number goes, the harder it is to sell a unit or to get a mortgage.

Holt said residents have tried communicating with county board members but have gotten little response.

"At some point, you just throw your hands up and say, 'What the heck is going on here?' " Robinson said.


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