Monday, July 14, 2008

GSA Response to Lori Waters Letter to the Community

Monday, July 14, 2008

Dear Friends, Neighbors and Supporters:

We find it necessary and responsible to respectfully respond to a statement issued by Supervisor Lori Waters on July 10th, which covers issues relating to our mission, to the County’s only daytime drop-in center, and to the homeless issue in general in our community. This letter is also posted on our website,

We provide a wide and thorough review below of our issues and concerns, and – importantly – we offer a meaningful and timely compromise proposal at the conclusion of this document for immediate consideration.

As a Christian organization, ‘Points of Light’ award recipient, and well-respected 25-year advocate and servant of the homeless and indigent in Loudoun, The Good Shepherd Alliance (GSA) was saddened, disappointed, and truly taken aback by the tone and tenor of the “Open Letter” issued last week. We found it to be very negative, unhelpful, and riddled with untruths and inaccuracies. Most of all, we felt this response to our two weeks of legitimate advocacy work was a complete and unnecessary over-escalation to the justified concerns we raised. Certainly, we can all rise above such tactics and language. Thus, we attempt to take a high-road here - to appeal to decency and to our ‘better angels’.

The most important take-away from the July 10th letter is a victory for the GSA and for the homeless in Loudoun on several fronts. First, we congratulate the County staff on the front lines who finally opened the drop-in center 10 days after we vacated it on June 30th – their efforts are to be applauded. Second, we herald the County’s stated flexibility in the letter that they will now “work to accommodate any needed schedule changes”, and that the “schedule will be re-examined”. This is a gesture in response to the GSA’s respectful and dogged advocacy work over the past two weeks throughout the community about the day center operations. And, third, we applaud the County for providing a more thorough accounting of how the day center will be run, and how they are planning for future efforts on behalf of the County’s homeless and poor. It’s a level of open and granular accounting whose time has come.

For the first time in over eight months – and after a grueling period of harsh scrutiny and examination of everything we do – the GSA became an advocacy organization again, fighting for what we believe in, pointing out genuine concerns, going to the mat for those who have no voice. In effect, doing our job.

It is a mistake and misguided to simplistically translate genuine, fact-based expressions of concern and advocacy for “accusations” and “attacks”. Nonsense. If the County is going to take away and takeover a non-profit’s longtime operation, then the County must be prepared to receive the exact same level of scrutiny to which the GSA has been painfully subjected since last Fall’s community meeting at Ashburn Elementary.

Make no mistake: in this endeavor, our intentions are good, our record is solid, our passion is strong, our purpose is heartfelt – and our focus will be absolutely unyielding.

It is exceptionally important that citizens understand that before the GSA took its case to the community regarding the daytime drop-in center we vacated as scheduled on June 30th, we communicated thoroughly and diligently about the transition of the space and operations with the County staff. In fact, we have been feeding the County information and data about its operations since the early winter. In June, both our GSA Administrator and Chair of the Board of Directors communicated with County staff and Mr. Rob Eamich about the drop in center and concerns we had.

Only in mid-June we were informed – through a mass email – that the County was reducing the hours of operation by 50%, operating it part time 9am to 1pm, Monday through Thursday, and Friday from 1pm to 5pm. (the GSA operated it all day from 9am to 5pm, based purely on need and demand). We immediately expressed our concern and opposition to County staff, and to HOAs and residents. We were not properly consulted. How that transpired remains unclear and confusing to us. Then, just before we vacated the premises on June 30th, we were told that the day center would be closed until further notice. Then, after we vacated the premises, a visit to the center demonstrated that there was no documented efforts to make its users aware and educated about any transition period or transition services…no posted signs, no handouts, nothing.

This apparent ‘fraying at the edges’ of our agreement with the County from last Fall was enough to warrant our spokesperson, Nicholas Graham, to first take our case before a public meeting of the full Board of Supervisors on Monday June 30th, the day we vacated the drop-in facility. Graham spoke directly and clearly to all nine Supervisors, first inviting them to our dedication of the new Ashburn Road facility on July 15th, and then outlining our grave concerns about the day center to those gathered, broadcast live on Loudoun’s Government television channel. Graham asked for someone to step forward and address this issue immediately, and offered our help and expertise in the process.

The GSA believes an appearance at an official Public Input meeting of the County Board of Supervisors and an appeal for action and collaboration constitutes sufficient notice, and certainly supersedes the merits of a phone call to Ms. Waters or Mr. Chirles.

And, in the ensuing days, the GSA never heard from anyone on the Board of Supervisors, including Ms. Waters. At that time, we felt it necessary to make others in the community aware of our concerns. That is our right, it is our responsibility, and it is in many ways our obligation.

It should also be noted that, several times since last Fall, we have invited the Broad Run Supervisor to come to one of our many “Neighborhood Advisory Council” meetings, to visit our new site under construction in Ashburn, and to come to our dedication on July 15th. We have never received an affirmative response or any expression of interest to actually see our activities or our mission being carried out.

Responding to and refuting points from the “Open Letter”

Allow us now to respond to the points laid out in the July 10th letter.

In the second paragraph, “mounting confusion about GSA’s operations at the Ashburn Road location” is cited. We find this baffling. The only lack of knowledge that someone might have about our new site would occur only to those who have not communicated directly with the GSA, or who have never visited the site. Or attended one of the 10 meetings we’ve had with HOAs and residents since last Fall. Or read one of our handfuls of “Letters to the Community”. Or seen our dozens and dozens of articles (with photos) about our new site in the media since last November. If there are words that have been commonly associated with the GSA since last Fall, it’s universally accepted to be: “transparent”, “open”, “honest”, “consistent”, “engaged”, and “proactive”.

If there is “mounting confusion”, it’s most certainly due to a mismanagement of the day center transition, as well as a flurry of fear-mongering, vituperative and vengeful emails that have been circulating in the community in the past week from those who have always apposed the presence of anything having to do with homelessness, and who always will. A lawyerly reading of the story in The Washington Post on Sunday, July 6th (which kicked off the email strings) about our new site yields a pure rendering of what the site will provide, and not provide, and can be easily backed up by a massive terrain of text covering the past eight months of GSA efforts.

In the third paragraph of the letter, the process for the County’s takeover of the daytime drop-in center is reviewed. It’s critical to know that the daytime drop-in center was ceded to the County under a painful and heart-breaking agreement by the GSA. We felt that we were given absolutely no option at the time to do anything else. The County gave us an unyielding choice between rock and a hard place: the GSA could either give up the day center in Leesburg to the County, or face community uproar in Ashburn for having a day center located there.

We were absolutely promised that the drop-in center, under the County’s operation, would be ‘seamlessly’ transitioned, and it would be ‘turn-key’. Those words were inferred at the time very clearly to mean that the County would operate the day center in the exact same manner in which the GSA did, and in the manner accustomed to by the very clients and guests who use it. That was the deal. That was the handshake. Plain and simple. Not open to interpretation. It is enfranchised in the Board vote of November 20th, 2007.

The letter incorrectly states that the GSA’s daytime drop-in center no longer “provided services to single homeless men”. That was the case for our shelter operations, not – repeat – not, for our daytime drop in center. That site has always served homeless, single men…right up until June 30th, 2008. This parallel is considered by us to be a wayward ‘apples and oranges’ comparison. Of course, the letter unfortunately leaves out the fact that the GSA still serves men in its shelters who are staying as part of a family.

In terms of budget allocations for the drop in center, the County knew back in November what was required and that resources needed to be budgeted for it from other sources, and they therefore had eight months to plan for it. It’s not hard to image that a County with revenues of over one billion dollars, could simply ensure that the center was open for four extra hours every weekday. Instead, our County budget allocation for the ensuing fiscal year has now been reduced by $10,000 to $70,000 – from a consistent $80,000 for the past two budget cycles. This has happened to us in the face of a massively growing demand for homeless and indigent services – all in the climate of an economic downturn, increasing foreclosures, and factually documented rise in homeless ‘turnaways’ by the GSA of in 2007 and 2008.

In the letter’s fourth paragraph, the timing of the transition of the day center to the County is reviewed. No one at the GSA ever stated that the County was “abandoning the homeless”; this is subjective terminology wrongly attributed to us. Again, we know firsthand that the County’s takeover transpired in an environment of lack of communication to those who use it. There was almost no awareness or education or communication on the street, or posted on the facility itself. In our conversations with citizens on the street, there was confusion and despondency about the process and transition. Having our clients being offered to use services at the County’s program for disadvantaged youth down the street is a good gesture, but one riddled with burdens and difficulties for the homeless because we still do not consider that to be ‘seamless’. We were also informed that those facilities had less than optimal bathing quarters (limited or no hot water, and low or no water pressure in the showers). Our homeless friends also were uncomfortable using facilities for another audience, troubled youth. Lastly, we would have welcomed the County’s repair work inside the facility prior to June 30th, to make the transition much shorter and more seamless. This was, in fact, offered to the County by our Administrator, but the offer was not taken.

We think a ‘gap in services’ exists when there is confusion amongst the homeless, a lack of communication and awareness, a delay in the opening of the core day center site for 10 days, a 50% reduction in hours of operation, and a change of location – however temporary.

In paragraph five, the letter overviews demand for services at the day drop-in center. This is at the core of our concerns regarding the drop-in site. The letter cites that “only five to seven” citizens used the drop-in center. That is wholly inaccurate. We know that 5 to 7 is the minimum level of usage at the site. During many other times of the year – usually during ‘back-to-school’ and winter days, or extremely hot days – that number can rise to as much as 20 people daily. It could change tomorrow. In addition, a documented measurement of usage this year from January to June shows exactly 88 different, unique visitors using that facility, and 1,200 meals being served. Importantly, these numbers have been documented in our files, and shared with the County and State since January 2008 for the purpose of day center transition planning with the GSA. No one has ever stated “100 unique visitors”, as the letter alleges, but 88 is certainly a significant and high number. The letter states that “audits of the GSA…never confirmed such counts”. Well - they wouldn’t; we’ve simply never used that figure.

Let us be clear about the daytime usage. It fluctuates. It’s seasonal. It’s certainly ongoing. By focusing on the minimum of “only 5 to 7” users, the County is not operating for planning purposes on true long-term needs. It’s not reflective of a week to week, or month-to-month measurement. It appears that this measurement was taken informally in a survey over a few days in late June or July, at one of the slowest, “low-point” times of the year for day center usage…and over a holiday week.

Much of the rest of paragraph five is spent minimizing the County’s estimate of the underlying homeless issue itself. We believe this shortchanges the issue and the cause of helping the County’s neediest and most vulnerable. First, it is widely viewed by advocates for the indigent that the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) survey of the homelessness population notoriously undercounts homeless levels. Frequently, data is gathered via a one-day, ‘snapshot’ count of homelessness in any jurisdiction. This leads to seasonal inaccuracies and does not give an overview to the annual affliction of homelessness, and its fluctuating levels.

But if the COG numbers are to be used by the County as a yardstick, they deserve a moment of deeper scrutiny than laid out in Ms. Waters’ letter. The citation of “chronic homeless” paints an incomplete picture of what the County faces overall with respect to caring for the homeless across all services; a focus on this one statistic suggests a more optimistic view than the GSA experiences on a day to day basis. This one singular statistic, and the associated overall drop that is implied, accounts for only 10% to25% of the total homeless numbers. That number does not count short-term homelessness, which is a real challenge for jurisdictions such as Loudoun; the short-term homeless encompasses the root of the problem – those caught in foreclosures, home disasters, sudden loss of job, and so forth. Furthermore, this specific stratum of homelessness has been increasing, not declining. According to the very same COG report cited, homelessness in total has actually grown 127% from 2005 to 2007.

The GSA’s own year-round data collection showed that we had to turn away almost 1,000 women, children, and babies in 2007 due to lack of shelter space, staff or resources. That was a huge increase over 2006 levels. This year alone, our cumulative count as of June 30 shows almost 500 turnaways, on par to meet – and perhaps exceed – last year’s count. It should also be noted, in the County’s overview of homeless services, that the GSA can claim a critical and unmistakable role in successes in the County in terms of caring for the homeless. Not just through our many GSA programs, but through the fact that we assume 60% of the homeless problem (in terms of shelter space and services), and our quarterly success rates in the past year have approached 90% via our “Six Step Program” to transition the homeless back into permanent housing and a new, productive life. And we engage daily – intensely and collaboratively - with the County’s PATH program cited in this letter.

In paragraph six of the “Open Letter”, the County overviews its shelter resources. It is true that the GSA used to operate a homeless shelter for single men until 2006, when we were forced to discontinue services to this population due to lack of facilities, funds, resources, and County support. It was a harsh reality. It was also a move that we communicated to the County and the GSA asked for their help. After the GSA was forced to close its single men’s shelter, the County did not step in and take responsibility for a single men’s shelter - or establish one - despite repeated GSA lobbying for one at the County level at that time.

In paragraph seven of the letter, the erroneous claim that only “seven men” use the center is repeated. The letter also states that “County staff frequently encouraged GSA staff to bring or direct the homeless clients to the Workforce Resource Center, but GSA rarely took such action.” Absolutely, unequivocally untrue. Everyone the GSA served at the daytime drop-in center was asked by GSA staff to go to the County’s Workforce Resource Center, and everyone at the County staff level, at least, knows that the GSA works daily and constantly with staff at the Department of Family Services, as well as with the Department of Mental Health/PATH.

In paragraph eight, the “Open Letter” again cites the day center hours of operation. The GSA vigorously and passionately questions basing the new centers’ operating hours on a recent, one-time survey of the ‘seven men’ who allegedly currently use the day center. We also believe it is totally counterintuitive and illogical to conduct an informal, ad-hoc survey about a service that the County had not yet even started to provide at the time – then base a going-forward program on that data.

There is simply no discounting the importance of having a full day center, with consistency of hours. It’s critical to provide an eight-hour window in the day because many of our guests work shifts and need timing flexibility to eat, bathe, wash clothes, look for job opportunities, and find good clothes. One example is washing clothes – the laundering clothes takes an hour for one person; being open for just four hours allows for just four people (at most) to launder clothes, creating human traffic issues and placing the burden on the homeless, instead of the County. The bottom line is, as day center usage grows week to week throughout the year, more hours of operation will clearly be needed.

We are also dumbfounded as to why the day center hours change on Friday to 1pm to 5pm, when the rest of the week they are 9am to 1pm. This disadvantages some people four out of five days of the week, and others one out of five days a week. Under the GSA hours of operations, everyone could get breakfast, lunch, and even an early dinner. That will not consistently be the case at all under the new County-mandated hours of the center. Some will now go without meals at the center – period.

Frankly, what the process says to us is that the County is basing the operation of the new center solely on budget numbers - and absolutely not based on need, demand, or proper consistent, services to the indigent.

In paragraph nine, the “Open Letter” makes a glaring oversight regarding the GSA’s well-known shelter operations: it neglects to accurately count the number or kind of shelters we operate in Loudoun, which is on our website and on all our materials. The GSA operates three separate shelters: one for pregnant women and children; one for single women and single women with children; and a family shelter, with a total of 36 beds. The County only operates one shelter in Loudoun, the Woods Road shelter, operated by Volunteers of America for the County

The paragraph further goes through a review of funding for the GSA from the County, and funding for the day center. First, it’s hard not to believe that the current County allocation for the GSA was reduced by $10,000 in 2008 for reasons other than to fund the County takeover of the daytime drop-in center. It has a palpable veneer of a cloaked fiscal ‘shell-game’. It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul. But that belies the point that operating the day center didn’t cost the GSA any money other than rent. In the past few budget cycles, we used our County allocation of funds for desperately needed, core programs and services at our shelters – not for the day center. Taking funds away from the GSA at this time flies in the face of logic and circumstances: we’ve shown drastically rising homeless turnaways, the County and nation facing a huge foreclosure crisis, economic times are getting more dire – all while the GSA has expanded its homeless services in terms of volume and scope, while the costs for providing them continue to rise. Reducing GSA funding is also clearly hurtful to those very souls we are trying to help – it’s taking away funds that go directly to services for women, children, and babies. While we no longer operate a shelter for single homeless men, we serve men as part of families in our shelter, and last year we opened up an entirely new shelter for homeless pregnant women with children in Purcellville.

If somehow the County is inferring that our numbers don’t add up, or that our accounting is questionable, then it should be known that the GSA books have been audited on five different levels - County, State, Federal, independent auditors, and a respected, faith-based auditing organization (ECFA). The GSA welcomes any kind of scrutiny, review and examination of our records and files on accounting for the County funds we receive. The GSA has been held to high fiscal standards, and we strongly believe that we’ve exceeded them.

In our view, paragraph ten of the “Open Letter” is the most dangerous, perplexing, and quixotic section of the letter. It is impolitic and inflammable. It directly infers that the GSA is considering the idea of establishing a daytime drop-in center at our new Ashburn location. We are respectfully asking Supervisor Waters to cease this at once. Supervisor Waters, in fact, knows this is not the case whatsoever. In the interest of true community unity and understanding, please do not harmfully, single-handedly undo eight months of the GSA’s honest, diligent, careful work with the Board, County staff, HOAs, residents, and Loudoun’s media organizations to define what will – and will not – be located at our new Ashburn facility.

The “Open Letter” quotes from a community notice the GSA penned and disseminated widely on Nov 27, 2007. It refers to a quote by the Chair of our Board that explicitly states there will not be a drop-in center at our new location. But the “Open Letter”’s language also very much ‘muddies the waters’ by attempting to equate “drop-in services” with weekly case management appointments between GSA staff and our guests. These are two completely different issues, and we have defined both in excruciating detail from the very beginning. Our meetings with the community, members of the Board of Supervisors, and interviews with media outlets have carefully laid this process out for almost eight months. We have always had these kinds of appointments in our administrative offices, and we will continue to do so.

Ironically, the very same Nov 27, 2007 GSA letter clearly stated that at the new Ashburn site the GSA plans to: “conduct guest case management through supervised guest meetings with professional social workers - a required part of our six-step program to transition the homeless back into productive members of society and the local community.”

This is why, when the “Open Letter” states, “…I do not have the legal authority to prevent them from using their Ashburn Rd. location”, and then “If the GSA is going to have a true or de facto drop-in center, such actions will have consequences though”, we think this is an attempt at intimidation that is inappropriate, wrongful, damaging and utterly unacceptable.

Conclusion - and a Compromise Proposal

We’re extremely dismayed that a non-profit that has done so much on behalf of the homeless, and on behalf of Loudoun County, would be the target of such a letter. Amazingly, it not only questions our mission and purpose, but we feel it totally discounts the existence of homelessness and destitution as a current – or future – issue to face and prepare for. We remain astounded that a County as large as Loudoun is, which is undergoing painful budgetary challenges, would refuse to positively collaborate or work constructively with a 25-year non-profit with an unparalleled and lengthy record of expertise, service and success in order to maximize resources, share talent, and reach the shared, end-goal of bringing dignity and solutions to our homeless citizens.

The bottom line is, the County appeared to change the rules of the game on us in the ninth-inning concerning the day center. We do not believe at all that this new framework of operations conforms to the letter, or intent, of the agreement we reached with the County last fall. We believe that not honoring that commitment sends a chilling message to organizations and non-profits the County works with that a deal is not a deal, and cannot be relied on. We do not believe that keeping the day center open for a mere four more hours each weekday is going to break the back – or the bank – of the County. We believe and know that the demand and need is there, and will continue. And we know that the homeless and indigent deserve a better process than this – where the burden is being placed on them, rather than on the County, to make it work.

To the entire Loudoun Board of Supervisors, we make this appeal for an immediate compromise: vote on a new County-GSA brokered proposal that maintains the Sycolin Road’s day drop-in center operating hours per our agreement of last fall (M-F, 9am-5pm); following one year of complete operation, let’s together sit down and re-evaluate operations, when we can then review the usage numbers for seasonality fluctuations and reassess demand moving forward. By doing this, we fully serve our homeless, maintain the previous agreement’s good-faith intent, and this plan would also – according to the County and Ms. Waters’ “Open Letter” - take us roughly to the time when the County will be opening their new shelter in the Fall of 2009, which will have “…a new, permanent drop-in center, which does include the potential for full-time hours.” That, to us, is the exact right approach and common-sense middle ground here.

We do agree with Ms. Waters on one point: our letters are lengthy, but necessary. But we really want the dialogue to be re-established and to take a high-road. But we have to respond in good measure, because we simply cannot sit idly by and allow a gold-label, faith-based non-profit’s very mission and purpose be attacked in this manner. And we also absolutely cannot and will not allow eight months of thorough, diligent community work and engagement by the GSA to be questioned, disavowed or ignored. We’ve come too far for that.

If anyone has any questions, we welcome them with an open mind – and an open door at our new Center of Hope in Ashburn.


Nicholas Graham, GSA volunteer spokesperson,
on behalf of the The Good Shepherd Alliance Board of Directors

cc: Loudoun County Board of Supervisors
Mr. Robert Chirles
U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf
State Senator Mark Herring
State Delegate Tom Rust
State Delegate David Poisson
GSA Board of Directors
GSA staff and volunteers
Loudoun County media organizations

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