Emergency shelter program conflicts with building codes
County inspectors want several area churches to make changes before housing homeless next winter
by Kali Schumitz, Staff Writer
Seven years into Fairfax County’s hypothermia prevention program, the effort to make sure homeless people have a warm place to sleep in the winter is tangling with state building codes.
County building inspectors have told a number of churches, which help provide emergency shelter for homeless people during the winter, that they might need to make changes to their buildings to continue participating in the hypothermia program. Changes include installing new fire alarms or using a different part of the building as sleeping quarters.
Amanda Andere, executive director of the Fairfax-based nonprofit FACETS, said she is concerned some of the 28 houses of worship her organization relies on to provide emergency shelter space in central Fairfax County might not be able to continue. About half are affected, she said.
“To lose half of our churches would take out a significant amount of capacity,” she said.
The county and its nonprofit partners served about 1,000 individuals at 36 emergency shelter sites around the county this past winter.
Fairfax County officials say they are committed to working with each participating facility to resolve the code issues, and allow them to continue to participate in the program.
“There continues to be thoughtful review as to how each of these facilities are operating and to make sure that they stay safe,” said Dean Klein, director of th county’s Office to Prevent and End Homelessness.
The current situation is perplexing for faith communities such as Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Falls Church, which has opened its doors as an emergency shelter for one week during the past six winters.
The hypothermia prevention program is set up differently in different parts of the county, depending on the nonprofit running it, but FACETS works with faith communities that each serve as a shelter for one week at a time.
Pastor Jane Halpern said her church’s participation in the program always has required an extra visit from an inspector from the fire marshal’s office. This year, during Holy Week, they got an extra inspection and learned about two weeks ago they were flagged as having fire safety issues, she said.
Halpern still is waiting to meet with county officials to find out exactly what they will need to do to comply with the building codes.
“It’s not a new code. We think it’s a reinterpretation of it,” Andere said.
Fairfax County officials have been monitoring building code issues from the start, according to county spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald, but the program has evolved throughout the years.
It started with 17 sites; now there are 36. There also are more services being provided to clients at the hypothermia shelters, rather than just bringing people out of the cold and giving them a meal.
“It’s a matter of our success,” said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bulova (D-At large). “It’s grown and also the period of time is longer.”
Klein said he is confident the county will be able to work through all of the code issues during the next winter cycle, which will be a transition period.
“We’ll hopefully be able to work out many issues and then, if we need additional sites, we’ll be able to identify those,” he said.
Bulova said there also might need to be a legislative solution that allows more flexibility in state building codes for similar situations, as Fairfax County is not the only jurisdiction to have dealt with this.