On April 4 2022, tents were pitched in front of the North County Government building as temporary accommodations for those who were displaced as a result of the hypothermia shelters and Covid programs winding down. From that initial event, the neighbors in tents initiative has grown. Reston Strong has collaborated with the unhoused, county officials, and INOVA hospital to provide accommodations for our tent residents.
A lack of low income affordable housing is a key contributor to homelessness in the region, but that cannot be changed overnight. In the meantime, we still have people who need support now. Reston Strong held a closed door meeting between elected officials and our unhoused neighbors in Reston at the end of March to express the urgency.
Despite our best efforts, when the doors to hypothermia shelters closed, many were back out on the street without a plan in place. Reston Strong volunteers kindly showed up and pitched tents at the North County Government building across the street from Embry Rucker and helped move personal belongings. This was done out of necessity, not a desire to protest.
It took three days of requests from Reston Strong to secure 24-hour access to a bathroom after requests for a porta-potty were denied. Having elderly women walk across the street at night to use the restroom at Embry Rucker was not our ideal scenario. Unhoused neighbors were initially denied access to the North County Government facility, while Reston Strong volunteers were not. Although access was eventually granted for unhoused neighbors, it was disheartening to see the disparity in treatment between those who are housed and those who are not.
We are happy to announce that some of our residents have been placed in shelter beds. Reston Strong drove several people to Fort Belvoir to a shelter which had space available for them. A few are at other shelters and Embry Rucker. Most shelters in the area were (and are) full and did not have room to take those who were staying in hypothermia. To fill this need, Reston Strong provided tents to those who needed them, and we continue to assist this tent community through food deliveries, trash pickup, and providing other basic needs.
This would not have been possible without the generous contributions of volunteers, donors, and local reporters who gave the matter attention. While we are relieved to have transitioned some individuals to a shelter and/or housing, we are disappointed this came after a long delay, and that we still have many others waiting. It breaks our heart that we have yet to place four elderly women with health issues, but we are committed to staying with them until that changes. The Fairfax County Office to Prevent and End Homelessness, Supervisor Alcorn's Office, Community Service Board, Cornerstones, and their other partners are working to find placement.
Tents were not what Reston Strong wanted. They were a temporary solution in the absence of a governmental one. Reston Strong began petitioning elected officials many months ago to make a plan and take action before the closures took place to ensure continuity of services. One of our specific requests to the Board of Supervisors was to modify the Fairfax County zoning ordinance to allow for temporary transitional housing as a by right use for empty commercial buildings/spaces in Reston.
Our unhoused neighbors are experiencing hardship for a variety of reasons and most of them have jobs in the area. Some even have graduate degrees. Everyone in our community deserves to be treated with respect and humanity. Concerns of "biohazards and crime" should be directed towards securing better policies — not to shift blame on vulnerable people or community volunteers.
We are grateful for everyone who has given our unhoused residents a place to stay for now. Whether that was through a donation or giving your time, it made a difference. We will continue to fight for our community.