The sky is pitch black at 5 a.m. on this cold winter morning, as five men and women push their way past prickly black branches and enter the small patch of woods between the Centreville Square shopping plaza and a hotel parking lot.
As a woman lightly hums “Morning Has Broken,” and another calls out cheery hellos, they walk past a rotting old couch without any cushions. Thousands upon thousands of empty beer cans, layered upon each other, are visible on huge patches of ground by the faint bit of light coming their flashlights.
No one is here this morning, but it’s obvious that to these volunteers from FACETS—an organization that helps those living in poverty in Fairfax County—that people have inhabited these woods for a long time. And it comes as a relief that no one is asleep on the old mattress wedged between muddy piles of clothing and an infant toy. They take it as a sign that their message is getting out: that Centreville’s homeless know where to find hypothermia shelters in the bitter winter cold.
“We got a hot spot, we just don’t have any bodies,” observes Charlie Hoffman, as the group takes in the sight of a small pink hula hoop set against a broken metal and wicker chair, and several pairs of pants hanging on a makeshift clothesline.
Read more: Working to End Homelessness in Fairfax County
As part of Fairfax County’s 10-year effort to end homelessness, volunteers from FACETS this week fanned out across Fairfax County to try and register the 300 souls who have been identified as chronically homeless—that is, homeless for more than one year, or homeless three times in the last four years. The effort, dubbed the 100,000 Homes Campaign, lasted for three days, as volunteers used smartphones to snap photos, take down identifying information and record histories about people in need of help.
Volunteers met up at 4 a.m. from Feb. 25-27 to explore every nook and cranny of the county, including the Centreville area. With 2,900 people homeless in Fairfax County, this will help the county and nonprofits prioritize who gets help first—someone with a medical condition, for instance, will go to the top of a waiting list. And time is valuable when the weather is frigid—an effort like this could potentially be life-saving.
This team, consisting of Hoffman, Andra Baylus, Gaynor Sorrell, Bill Grossman and leader Jose Apaza-Pacheco, went out to Centreville on these three days. They explored woods not far from the NOVEC Harrison Substation. They peeked inside an abandoned house on Route 29. In Fairfax the first day, they met two men, one who was homeless and one in danger of becoming so. The two are the topic of much conversation for the next two days, as they see signs of more homeless people in Centreville, but meet none.
Read more: Lord of Life Lutheran Church Welcomes Homeless at Hypothermia Shelter
Baylus has a strategy for initiating conversations that might make some people uncomfortable.
“Make [homeless people] feel good about themselves,” she says. “Point out something that’s good about them: their smile, for instance.”
“They just like to be acknowledged, not treated like a street sign or part of the scenery,” Sorrell adds.
On March 4, the 200 volunteers who took part in registry week, the Fairfax County Office to Prevent and End Homelessness, and several other nonprofits will meet to reveal the results of their efforts.
As Baylus explores an area near the abandoned house, she recalls a homeless man she once knew who eventually died in the winter cold. And when the group returns to their meeting place in Fairfax, someone expresses aloud the thought they've all had.
"It's actually good that we're not finding people, because that means they're safe and warm in shelters."