Fairfax County Winter Shelters Face Inspection Scrutiny
Some shelters could be required to make changes in 2013-14 season.
Winter hypothermia shelters for the homeless in Fairfax County face new inspections before they will be allowed to operate in the 2013-14 season.
Fairfax County officials have begun inspecting all hypothermia shelters for fire and building code violations. The shelters will be allowed to operate as usual in the winter season beginning this December, but some shelters will be required to make improvements to operate the year after that, and occupancy limits might be lowered.
Dean Klein, director of the county Office to Prevent and End Homelessness, said 36 sites, overwhelmingly churches and other houses of worship, hosted hypothermia shelters this past winter. Many shelters rotate among sites weekly. Klein said no changes would be mandated this coming winter in order to give sites adequate time to make any needed adjustments.
“This will give us ample time to go out and visit all of the sites that are currently in operation to make sure all of them are meeting safety codes,” Klein said.
The Fairfax-Falls Church Community Partnership on Ending Homelessness recently concluded its eighth year in Fairfax County. Since the program’s inception, it has doubled in the number of sites and the number of individuals served. Some building safety issues were noted during annual site visits this past winter, according to the county.
Fairfax County spokeswoman Stacy Patterson provided a list of criteria inspectors will be evaluating. They include keeping an emergency evacuation plan on hand, installing interconnected smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors where applicable, installing illuminated or glow-in-the-dark exit signs and installing sprinklers or complying with other conditions in lieu of sprinklers.
The maximum occupancy will be based on 35 square feet per person in the sleeping areas.
The only hypothermia shelter located in southern Fairfax County does not rotate but is housed at Rising Hope United Methodist Church and operated by New Hope Housing through the Ventures in Community-Hypothermia Outreach Program, or VIC-HOP. New Hope Housing Executive Director Pam Michell said it’s unlikely that the inspections will require drastic changes at VIC-HOP.
“Rising Hope is new,” she said. “It’s got all the bells and whistles in terms of fire and safety, and that kind of thing. The only thing potentially could be numbers.”
Currently, up to 25 people per night are allowed to stay at VIC-HOP. That site will be inspected next week, Michell said.
Countywide during the 2010-11 season, the latest year for which data is available, the hypothermia shelter program served more than 1,000 people, Klein said. Most sites work with nonprofit partners.
“I think the program is built upon a model of collaboration and partnership, and that is very much valued, so we’re trying to work so that that will continue and make any changes necessary, but continue to make sure the program operates effectively,” Klein said.
Michell said county inspectors are enforcing state code, which she hopes will change to allow exemptions for faith communities housing hypothermia shelters. Michell said she planned to advocate for long-term changes to those rules in the near future.
Read Patch's account of a night at VIC-HOP here.