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Woodbridge Shelter Fights Homelessness

- The Hilda M. Barg Homelessness Prevention Center helps break stereotypes of homelessness while empowering people to take charge of their own lives.

Woodbridge Shelter Fights Homelessness

They are engineers and immigrants, college graduates and high school dropouts, men and women of all shapes and colors. Some come from high-income backgrounds and others are in food service. One of the only things they have in common is that they all live in a homeless shelter.

“The stereotypical view of homeless people is not accurate today,” said Dana Metzger, who works with the communications team at the Hilda M. Barg Homeless Prevention Center of Woodbridge. “The face has changed. Many people do hold jobs and are just a little down on their luck.”

The center has operated in Prince William County since 1990 and, unlike other facilities that merely provide a place for the homeless to sleep, Hilda M. Barg works to address the underlying causes of poverty and homelessness. The 30-bed, short-term shelter provides, according to its website, mental health screening and counseling, child services, budget training, and adult education and employment services. The center also helps about 230 individuals and families find affordable housing each year.

“We have a housing-first model,” said Rian Brown, assistant director at the center, which works with landlords and apartment complexes to negotiate lower rents. “We utilize the affordable housing as a jump start. We pay the first month’s rent and the security deposit, and we do the second and third month as well. It’s kind of an extension of the shelter and gives residents the chance to save some money.”

Brown was quick to shoot down popular criticisms of similar programs, and noted that participants must be drug and alcohol free to meet eligibility requirements.

“Right now with our current caseload, they all have incomes,” she said. “They are all employed. A lot of them maybe had a brief lapse of employment while in their own housing, and they got behind and were evicted. They found jobs before they came here, but by then they were so behind they had to leave. We’ve seen a lot of professionals come through our doors who we might not have seen in the past.”

Tracey Thomas, program assistant, agreed.

“We had a woman who was an engineer with the government,” she explained. “She got into a domestic violence situation where she was being threatened. Her husband was harassing her at work and the employer let her go. She went through all of her savings and had no family around to take her in, so she ended up here. She had master’s degree in engineering. That puts into perspective. It can happen to anyone.”

Brown said that the shelter’s residents were “a mix of professionals and low-income individuals,” many of whom made well over minimum wage but could not find reasonably priced housing in the Northern Virginia area.

“In Loudoun and Fairfax it’s especially difficult,” Brown said.

As part of its goal of empowering clients, the center offers budgeting courses led by Denise Kimberlin, a CPA.

“We help them project a budget they think can work with,” said Brown. “If they’re not employed, we ask what they think they can make within a certain job. Once they are employed and get back into housing, they can manage money to pay their bills and learn to not exceed their means.”

The center also provides parenting counseling to make sure the needs of the clients’ children are met. Twelve-step meetings and substance abuse prevention are incorporated to assist a group of people who are disproportionately affected by mental illness.

“The idea we have is to help them achieve self-sufficiency,” said Thomas, the program assistant. “In a lot of cases the stereotype of homeless people is the opposite of the reality. You just never know who’s sitting next to you. Just because someone is homeless doesn’t mean they’re what everyone jumps to the conclusion of.”
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