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Residents, County Talk Security for Year-Round Homeless Center

Arlington County will host its final community meeting in January.

Arlington County staff this week met with neighbors of the recently acquired building at 2020 14th St. N., two floors of which will be converted to a year-round homeless service center.

The residents' initial furor seems to have started to give way at exasperation. After spending nearly three hours hearing about the county's plans and giving their input earlier this month, several residents said Tuesday they were frustrated at what they perceived as the county continuing to ignore their concerns.

"I'm just sick of people trying to make us feel bad," said January Holt, a resident of the Woodbury Heights condominium building adjacent to the county's new office and homeless service center building.

"And I'm tired of going to these meetings."

Some of the feelings come from Arlington and its partners, including MTFA Architecture, making incremental changes to conceptual designs based on feedback they've received in an attempt to address larger concerns — which some residents see as little or no real change at all.

One of the residents' primary concerns expressed earlier this month, for instance, was the location of the entrance to the homeless service center, which will be on the building's second and third floors.

Residents want the entrance as far away as possible from Troy Street, which runs parallel to Courthouse Road and generally separates the office and commercial sectors from residences. In response, designers moved the doorway about 20 feet away — that is, about 20 feet closer to Courthouse Road. Part of the problem is county fire codes require stairwells to be certain distances apart.

But that wasn't enough. And resident Carol Buckman let several people involved on the county side know.

"They're trying to balance all of the concerns," said Doug Sarno, who is facilitating the public engagement process. "They're seriously taking the public input into consideration. They don't have a lot to work with."

Residents on Tuesday made a big push to get the county to commit to the presence of a security guard — several other residential and government buildings in the neighborhood have one, they say, including other Arlington County facilities. The building is in line to be equipped with numerous cameras that six to eight Arlington County staff will be able to monitor 24/7.

Holt called the presence of a security guard "a necessary, non-negotiable item."

"If something happens, a camera isn't going to help you. And then you're looking at a lawsuit," she said. "There's going to be problems, and everyone needs to stop saying it's not."

Supporters of the new center often point out it's moving just one block from the county's existing Emergency Winter Shelter — from one side of the Arlington County Justice Building to the other.

Woodbury Heights resident Kerry Britton, who lives within walking distance from the police department, said she recently had to call the police and it took an officer 15 minutes to arrive. In a car.

Deputy County Manager Marsha Allgeier said she had "mixed feelings" about adding a security guard. In Virginia, unless a guard is a sworn officer, he or she can only call police in the case of a crime.

Everyone seemed to generally agree posting signs the building was under 24/7 video surveillance was one good deterrent.

Residents divided into three break-out groups Tuesday night, rotating between tables to discuss the physical security of the new facility (cameras, lighting and perhaps guards), aesthetics and the entrance, and operations of the new homeless center.

Among concerns about the center's operations was how long the 10 p.m. curfew would be in effect. The working arrangement was homeless clients would be able to leave at 5 a.m., though the matter may require case-by-case attention.

The low-barrier shelter will not deny people convicted of crimes. In the case of sex offenders, which is a hot topic, A-SPAN Executive Director Kathy Sibert said the current Emergency Winter Shelter usually sees no more than one such offender at a time. The Arlington Street People's Assistance Network is in line to operate the new year-round facility.

Each offender's probation officer will handle their monitoring.

"They're ex-offenders. They're not in jail," said Anita Friedman, Arlington County division chief over the Department of Human Services.

"The plan isn't to keep these people in this one universe. The plan is to reintegrate them into normal life."

Residents have also called for a review of the facility every six months for its first five years. The county has plans to set up a neighborhood advisory council.

Arlington County Board member Jay Fisette, who listened in to the various break-out groups, called the discussion "interesting" and "robust."

Eric Sheptoc, a homeless advocate in Washington, attended the Arlington meeting to see how things were done here.

"That's the biggest group of snobs I've ever seen," Sheptoc said. "They were just kind of dancing around this stigma that homeless people are the most dangerous people in the world."

He added: "You have criminals among the homeless and the housed."

The final community meeting is at 7 p.m. Jan. 14 at Key Elementary School. After that, the public will be able to speak at public hearings before the Planning Commission and Arlington County Board, likely in March.

Michele December 19, 2012 at 04:28 PM
If the county wants to not endanger the residents of the apartments next door, the county can make a rule: No Rapists and No Child Molesters live in free county housing. Or: No Sex offenders live in free government housing without security guards Or No Sex Offenders get to live in free housing next to a residential building. So many options here... There is no law saying that the county need to provide freer housing to anyone, why let the sex offenders mess it up for the rest of the homeless? Not wanting to live next door to a sex offender does not make someone a snob, it makes them sensible. Sex offenders do not get "cured" or rehabilitated.
Aaron December 20, 2012 at 02:18 PM
Good luck Courthouse. There is this one homeless guy in Ballston (black and red coat, puffy hair) that goes around yelling at all hours. The other day, he picked a random female office worker at 12pm to get right up her in face. Thankfully others stepped up to stop him and as I was dialing 911, a squad car happened to drive by and was flagged down. I shutter to think what would have happened had this been at 9pm. I asked the cop and he said they have had multiple contact with this guy but they can't arrest him. I literally fear running into him.
Don December 20, 2012 at 02:25 PM
Parents are rightly concerned about their children's safety. It is quite disconcerting to determine that so many of the people who make decisions in Arlington are either not residents or residents who live in upscale neighborhoods of single family homes and do not and will not suffer the consequences of their decisions. Same for the members of the media who facilitate the decision makers and their decisions.
GreaterClarendon December 20, 2012 at 03:07 PM
Please don't bring logic and common sense to this issue. I want to feel good about what I've done to help disadvantaged people, while I live far away from the shelter.

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