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ArlingtonAt A-SPAN, pandemic ‘has not stopped us’

At A-SPAN, pandemic ‘has not stopped us’

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Already working with a highly vulnerable population, the pandemic pandemonium of the last year has caused the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network (A-SPAN) to be nimble and creative in adjusting to meet the needs of its clients.

COVID “taught us we can still do what we need to do to get the job done,” said Terrance Toussaint, the organization’s director of homeless-services-center programs.

“We’ve learned a lot. We made all sorts of adjustments. If we continue to work hard . . . we can safely do what we need to do,” said Toussaint, speaking online during a “virtual” breakfast forum held Feb. 12.

(The event, traditionally held in-person, is called “Home for the Heart.”)

Among the adjustments over the past year: A-SPAN repurposed the dining room at the Homeless Services Center in Courthouse to bedroom space, allowing it to provide more physical distance among those living there.

Kasia Shaw, director of medical respite and nursing services for A-SPAN, said the pandemic has added another layer of intricacy in efforts to bring clients back to self-sufficiency.

“Every day is different – I just come in with an open mind that anything and everything can happen,” Shaw said in a conversation with Tommy McFly, a local media personality who emceed the hour-long event.

The past year represented a learning curve for Betsy Frantz, who early in 2020 was tapped to fill in for retiring A-SPAN CEO Kathleen Sibert then later in the year was appointed to the post permanently.

“It just feels right where I’m supposed to be,” Frantz told McFly. “We need to get through COVID, but that has not stopped us.”

Each January, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments conducts a “point in time” survey of homelessness around the region, looking both for those who are literally on the streets and those who are being housed in shelters or other places.

For 2020, the last year in which data are available, Arlington’s count of 199 homeless was down 7 percent from the year before, the biggest decline in the region. Across the area – including the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland – the total of 9,794 in 2020 was effectively flat from the 9,763 in 2019.

Put another way, 0.08 percent of Arlington’s population was counted as homeless in the 2020 survey, compared to a regional total of 0.18 percent. (By far the biggest component of the homeless population is in the District of Columbia, which in 2020 reported just under 1 percent of its total population meeting that description.)

Despite Arlington’s trends going in the right direction, Frantz, formerly CEO at Leadership Center for Excellence, pointed to a need to get further out into nooks and crannies of the community where hard-to-find homeless individuals may be living.

“We know there are other people out there – we just aren’t able to find them,” Frantz said. “We haven’t quite figured out the ‘how’ yet.”

A-SPAN began life four decades ago as a volunteer organization providing homemade sandwiches to those encamped across the community. Over the years, it evolved into more robust programming.

Five years ago, the Arlington County government contracted with the organization to run the Homeless Services Center, which replaced a winter shelter previously operated by A-SPAN under contract.

Dropping a full-service facility for the homeless into the Courthouse area did not sit well with some neighbors, but Tim Denning, who heads the A-SPAN board, said time has helped convince nearby residents of the importance of the work.

The situation with the nearby community is “pretty harmonious” right now, said Denning, who lives in a condominium next door.

“A lot of folks in my building have now changed their perceptions,” he said, acknowledging that it took “a lot of hard work” to get the buy-in.

The annual “Home for the Heart” event is designed both as an outreach tool and a fund-raising effort. Even though held online this year, there was a pitch for the community to provide support.

“Every bit counts as we try to end homelessness in our community,” Frantz said.

PHOTO: Terrance Toussaint, the director of homeless-services-center programs, discusses the current state of the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network (A-SPAN) during the 2021 “Home for the Heart” celebration, held online this year due to public-health concerns.

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