Thomas calls it a peaceful place.
Thomas (not his real name) is 44 years old. He moved from Fredericksburg southern Fairfax County two years ago to live with his sister. A former drug dealer, he now works five nights a week as a restaurant cook but doesn’t earn enough to make ends meet. Still, he sensed the time had come to head out on his own.
“I don’t want to put that burden on my sister,” Thomas says. “I’m a grown man, so I’ve got to stand up for myself.”
Standing up for himself landed him at the Ventures in Community Hypothermia Outreach Program shelter, or VIC-HOP. Coordinated by New Hope Housing with support from Fairfax County, VIC-HOP is staffed largely by volunteers from Ventures in Community, a ecumenical group of faith communities in Mount Vernon and surrounding areas. Housed at Rising Hope United Methodist Church on Russell Road, VIC-HOP provides free shelter and dinner to up to 25 adults Dec. 1 through March 31 every year.
This quiet corner of the world is where Thomas sleeps on his nights off. He’s saving money for a place to live.
“I don’t dwell too much on the past,” he says. “That’s what gets a lot of us in trouble — dwelling on the past, and, ‘what if,’ and ‘if I would have did this and I would have did that.’ … I think about it, but I don’t let it get to me.”
Dinner and a Rubber Mat
It’s 6 p.m. on a Friday at VIC-HOP. A few men sit patiently in the church foyer, waiting for the 7 p.m. check-in. VIC-HOP Volunteer Coordinator Sherry Edelkamp greets the night’s volunteers, a group from Heritage Presbyterian Church on Fort Hunt Road.
A homeless woman helps out Edelkamp by spraying 25 thin rubber mats with Lysol. The sleeping bags, laundered at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center, are piled in the office.
The volunteers quickly set to heating up dinner, which the women cooked at home earlier in the day. Tonight, the volunteers and the homeless — the “guests,” they’re called — will dine on meatloaf with gravy, mashed potatoes, green peas and eclair cake.
The kitchen resounds with the rattling of pans and the opening and closing of oven doors. One volunteer, Jenny Kennedy, brags about how well the mashed potatoes turned out. Many of the recipes they cook for the shelter come from the church cookbook, Kennedy says.
“In the book it will say, ‘Oh, I make this for VIC-HOP,’ because we each have our specialties,” she says.
The volunteers set the tables with plastic silverware and napkins, placing salt and pepper shakers and plates of cheesy garlic bread at each table. Edelkamp leads the church members and the initial seven guests in prayer: Thanks to God for bringing people together, thanks to God for the food and the volunteers, and an appeal to God to keep safe those on the streets tonight.
Men and women eat while a small television plays a serial crime drama. More guests arrive, coming indoors from the rainy night.
The rules at VIC-HOP are simple: no alcohol or drugs on the property, no weapons, no fighting or disruptive behavior, no stealing and no panhandling. “It’s kind of just the bare minimum rules (for) people who don’t want to follow a lot of rules, but they still feel they have a safe place to come in the wintertime and not be out in the woods,” Edelkamp explains.
VIC-HOP began in February 2006, after community leaders joined together to provide emergency shelter following the deaths of several homeless people in the Route 1 corridor. Guests may come anytime during the night, although space is limited to 25. Extras are driven to New Hope Housing’s Eleanor U. Kennedy Shelter at Fort Belvoir.
Most nights, it’s a uneventful place, Edelkamp says. “We’re like a family here. They all keep each other in check.”
Edelkamp will stay for three hours. After that, volunteers are in charge until morning. They serve in groups of three or four, sleeping in shifts in the church office with two people awake at all times.
VIC-HOP has housed 93 people to date this winter, less than last year, but the shelter will operate through the end of March. Seventeen different churches are sending volunteers to VIC-HOP this year.
A ‘Lot of Stress’
After dinner, some guests take to their mats to sleep. Others lie quietly and stare at nothing in particular. One woman empties and organizes a large bag, a routine she performs nightly. Other guests lounge in the dining area and watch television — Law & Order and Criminal Minds are favorites — or chat with one another.
There’s June (not her real name), who has been staying at VIC-HOP off and on since December. June, 56, sleeps in her car when the weather is warmer.
Well-dressed, wearing jewelry and a blue hat, June explains that homelessness is new to her. She helped operate a family business for 18 years, but when her mother died, she lost her income, the business and almost everything else.
She doesn’t drink alcohol, June stresses. She doesn’t use drugs. She keeps healthy with proper nutrition and plenty of fluids. Stress alone, she says, will drain your energy.
“It’s a lot of stress,” she says. “It’s embarrassing. It’s humiliating.”
At VIC-HOP, June says, there’s little drama. During the day, she searches for part-time work at the local library or stops by the county’s drop-in clinic at the Joe and Fredona Gartlan Center for Community Mental Health, located behind Inova Mount Vernon Hospital, where she can take a shower. She believes her age is working against her in finding a job.
“It’s hard,” she says. “It’s hard. It’s a continuing hardship. You have the struggle to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Anthony Blake, 43, sits at an adjacent table. He’s been at VIC-HOP since December. Before that, he lived outside, sleeping in laundromats. Blake explains he’s homeless by choice: He could stay with his sister in Maryland, or he could stay with his mother in Woodbridge, but without transportation there, he says it’s no better than jail.
"You’re not really homeless, Tony,” another guest yells to him. “You can go home anytime you want.”
Blake prefers VIC-HOP. During the day, he sits in a local bus shelter, drinks beer and reads The Washington Examiner. He pretends he’s drinking a mojito at the beach.
Blake doesn’t know what he’ll do when VIC-HOP ends its season March 31. “(I’ll go) wherever Jesus, God takes me,” he says. “We’re not even guaranteed tomorrow, so I’m not worried about the end of March.”
The Volunteer Night-Shift
It’s the beginning of the month, and Edelkamp expects fewer guests because several receive Social Security disability checks and pay for a few nights at local motels. When the lights go out at 11:30 p.m., 16 people are sleeping on rubber mats.
Four volunteers from Heritage Presbyterian are spending the night. They swap stories about people they’ve met at the shelter or talk about church. Volunteer Gary Larson, who is retired from both the military and from working in local schools, where he taught math, always checks the guest sign-in sheet for the names of former students.
“They have to have someone to watch over them. I have plenty of time, and I enjoy it,” he says. He’s never received any trouble from the guests. “They’re very personable. I mean, they’ve got their problems, and somebody’s going to have to help them.”
Volunteer Chris Geren says volunteering at VIC-HOP is the least she can do to give back to the community.
“I’m a Christian, a believer in Jesus Christ, and I’ve had so many blessings, it’s a sin for me not to give back,” she says. “I enjoy it. It gives me joy, and peace, and there are so many great people in the world, literally, ‘but for the grace of God go I,’ and they’re our fellow brothers and sisters, and it’s just our responsibility.”
The rain has stopped. It’s a fairly warm night for early March, and the temperature falls to only 46 degrees overnight.
Wake-up comes early. The guests turn their sleeping bags in to the volunteers, who roll up the mats and stow them away for the next night. Coffee brews, and the volunteers set out slices of breakfast danish and cartons of juice.
June is drinking coffee. Today, she plans to check her email for jobs. She’ll be back at VIC-HOP that night, she says. She likes the people.
“Empathy, sympathy toward the homeless, makes a big difference as far as the attitudes of everyone involved, the staff and volunteers,” June says. “You have to have compassion to understand. You might have never lived homeless, but you have to have the compassion.”
The volunteers hand each guest a plastic bag with snacks to eat now or save for later. They pack a few bags and a bin of supplies, and their work here is done. At 7 a.m., everyone is out into the dreary, drizzly morning. The volunteers head home. The guests take to the streets.
Anyone seeking information about volunteering at VIC-HOP may email Sherry Edelkamp email@example.com.