Community News — 29 September 2012
New center streamlines shelter intake for Alexandria’s homeless population

A new initiative at Carpenter’s Shelter will give Alexandria’s homeless a roof over their heads and a warm bed while staff help temporary residents rise out of destitution.

The Homeless Services Assessment Center, which opened September 4, provides a plethora of resources for homeless single adults, as well as those at risk of being homeless or fleeing domestic violence.

“This was really a collaboration with the city for the community,” said Lissette Bishins, executive director of Carpenter’s Shelter. “We all came around the table to create the solution.”

Residents seeking refuge in past years contacted Carpenter’s Shelter or the Alexandria Community Shelter to check on available beds. Shelters often fill quickly, and for many of Alexandria’s most vulnerable, finding a warm place to sleep quickly becomes part of the daily routine, said Deanna Villanueva, the homeless services and resource manager at Carpenter’s Shelter.

Now impoverished city residents can call HSAC program coordinator Michael Shields, who serves as a dispatcher of sorts. After meeting with potential clients, Shields’s small team assesses their needs and — if necessary — adds individuals to an emergency shelter referral list for notification as soon as a bed becomes available.

“Clients have been calling and calling, unable to get into a shelter,” said Villanueva. “It’s making it more helpful for our clients, and they’re seeing movement.”

In the first week of September, the center received more than 55 calls. By the second week, HSAC staff was handling nearly 100 inquiries.

“The HSAC as a centralized intake is a coordinated effort, and we’re the starting point,” Bishins said. “Once they connect, they’re in the system and all of the players involved are working on a plan toward self-sufficiency.”

Homelessness is not a new problem in Alexandria. According to a study conducted in January, about 352 residents are considered homeless, with more than 213 single adults facing the specter of life without shelter. A survey earlier this year — which tallied the homeless on the street, in emergency shelters and in transitional housing on a specific day — showed a 15-percent decrease in homelessness from 2011 to 2012.

Organizations like Carpenter’s Shelter continuously work to provide the city’s homeless with resources to get back on their feet but often face challenges, Villanueva said. She hopes the city will strive to make more affordable housing available in the future. Even in a studio apartment, a single mother earning minimum wage with three children struggles to make ends meet, she said.

When center staff are not finding beds for the homeless, they focus on reducing the length of average shelter stays for adults and families by 25 percent and increase awareness of services like food stamps. Part of the intake process includes identifying other sources of help available to residents in the community.

“Everyone in one way or another touches our homeless clients, and we want to make sure we’re all on the same page and working together in a coordinated effort,” Villanueva said.

She’s hopeful the center will expand to meet the demands of the community. HSAC constantly searches for better ways to help shelter residents, and though open for less than a month, feedback from clients has been favorable, she said.

“It’s a little more certainty for clients, and I think that’s really helpful,” Villanueva said. “It’s been rewarding and wonderful to hear.”

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