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'Lord, I'm relying on you' | The working unhoused in Fairfax County create encampment with support of volunteer group Reston Strong

County leaders are looking to empty office buildings as shelters and affordable housing options

RESTON, Va. — The rising cost of housing is the leading cause of homelessness. The National Alliance to End Homelessness says more than mental illness or drug abuse - the lack of affordable rent is forcing people to live on the street.  According to the latest census report, the average rent in Fairfax County is about $1,900 a month.

That's why advocates say one of the richest counties in America has a growing problem with the unhoused. Now County leaders are looking at empty office buildings as a solution. But will that come in time? 

The steamy summer day was interrupted by heavy afternoon rain showers when we visited the unhoused in the woods off a county road in Reston.  If you’re passing by, it’s easy to miss, but just a short distance down a wooded pathway you see signs of life. 

Sarah Salvaraj D’Souza and Roya Zarnegar with the community action group Reston Strong, led us down the pathway pointing out encampments. 

“These are mostly women in that section,” said D’Souza, “this is our Hispanic community.” 

And there is a garden for this community.  

“We have tomatoes!” exclaimed Zarnegar as she walked to see vine ripened tomatoes in a raised planter’s box her husband built with discarded deck material. 

Scattered among the evergreens, sit 18 tents purchased by the all-volunteer group. 

“We have another volunteer she has a track of who's in what tent,” explained D’Souza.

“Reston Strong has promoted this idea that everybody does have dignity,” said Joan McDonald. 

McDonald and her friend Tig have been living in the tents since Fairfax County’s COVID protections and hyperthermia shelter ended in April.

“Having a full-time job in Fairfax County at the rate I'm getting, it is frustrating that I really can't afford an apartment in this area,” said McDonald. "Maybe I could rent a room, but they might check my credit and that’s no so shiny.”

Like many of the working homeless in the encampment, McDonald has a job as a bus driver for Fairfax County Connector.  We also met Estelle Aganze in town, she has a job as well. 

“When it rains like this all the tents get flooded,” she explained. 

Aganze is a former refugee from the Congo. The 31-year old mother of three was forced to drop out of college and became estranged from family. While her children stay with a relative, she lives in her car.

“I want them to know that God is taking care of Mommy,” she said. 

When asked what the volunteers from Reston Strong mean to her, tears starting streaming down her face. “They give us hope at least we know somebody cares,” she said.

During the height of the pandemic, the county housed 700 people in hotels. D'Souza and her team at Reston Strong stepped in when the program ended, and 300 people were left with no place to go. So, they set up tents right outside the County's Supervisors office and after 100 days, placed black flags outside the building and black wreaths at their doorsteps.

“It was harsh to put those black wreaths outside of their office, but the reminder is are we waiting for a fatality?” asked D’Souza. 

Ending homelessness in Reston and throughout Fairfax County means addressing systemic racism that has led to a disproportionate amount of African Americans on the streets. 

According to the Office to Prevent and End Homelessness, Black people make up just 10% of the county's total population, but 50% of the unhoused.

“We're dealing with a legacy as well as current racism and discrimination especially around jobs and housing,” said Tom Barnett, the Deputy Director of the Office to Prevent and End Homelessness. 

“The board (of supervisors) directed us to talk to zoning and other land use experts and figure out what's possible in both commercial and industrial spaces for shelter and even supportive housing,” explained Barnett. 

According to the January's Point-in-Time count, 1,191 people experience chronic homelessness in Fairfax County. The Deputy Director said since many more people (on average a total of 3,000) move in and out of homelessness, beds at the county's shelters are always turning over. Embry Rucker - Reston's only emergency shelter – has 70 beds. 328 people are on the waiting list - 195 of them are currently on the street.

Reston Strong is critical of county leaders because they are not moving fast enough. Barnett considers them partners in the fight to end homelessness. 

“They've done great things serving the needs of people living in these tents and I think we can work together on immediate needs and long-term goals,” explained Barnett. 

So, the work continues - in the county offices and in the community hoping to come in, from the outside.

“I would like to get an over the road trucking job,” said McDonald. 

Aganze said when she takes off her makeup and heads into her car for the night she has one simple prayer: 

“Lord, I'm relying on you. I need your help.” 

If you’d like to help anyone in this story or others unhoused in Reston you can donate directly to Reston Strong.

RELATED: Virginia nonprofit helps families during historic inflation spike

RELATED: Homebuyers and renters of color face unfair housing practices in Fairfax County, per report

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