Efforts by an Arlington social-safety-net organization to take medical services directly to those who may need them most has accomplished much in its early stages, but will need a sustained effort, proponents say.
“We’re working with very limited resources. The success of this program is very dependent on manpower – we need to look at ways to build our team,” said Kasia Shaw, senior director of medical services for PathForward, the new-in-2021 name of the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network (A-SPAN).
Shaw spoke at the organization’s Feb. 11 “Coming Home” breakfast fund-raiser, held online due to pandemic conditions. She detailed PathForward’s Mobile Medical Program, launched last year to bring immediate and preventive services to those on the streets who are unwilling, or unable, to seek help.
In one sense, the initiative is simple. “We go out to the street and see who needs medical attention,” Shaw said.
But in another sense, it is ultra-complicated.
“Building trust [with those who are homeless] is a lot of hard work. It takes time and patience – a consistent presence, a regular presence, is what’s needed,” she said.
Currently, the Mobile Medical Program has a two-person staff, including a nurse.
“We need to look at ways to build our team,” Shaw said. “We’re super-confident we can make this into a sustainable program.”
A-SPAN/PathForward traces its history to a grass-roots effort supporting those who are homeless in Arlington dating to the 1980s. The organization formally came into being in 1992, and has expanded from a winter-only shelter in a dilapidated building to a full-time homeless-services facility operated under contract with the county government.
“We’re so much more than a shelter. We truly believe that everyone should be able to live free of the threat of homelessness,” said Betsy Frantz, who was tapped as the organization’s CEO just as the pandemic was rolling in.
In remarks, Frantz – a former head of Leadership Arlington – said many in the community are at risk of a descent into homelessness, and many who face it do not fit typical stereotypes.
“Anyone could experience homelessness – you just never know,” she said.
Services are most in need during the winter months, when the threat of hypothermia is ever-present.
“Forget about the rain, forget about the snow – it’s the temperature,” said Terrance Toussaint, senior director of the homeless-services center for PathForward.
Like Shaw, Toussaint said some prospective clients are wary of anyone offering unsolicited help.
“You have to build a relationship,” he said. “Building trust is a key component. Without trust, you will get nothing done.”
The annual count conducted by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in 2021 turned up 171 people in Arlington classified as homeless (whether in shelters or on the streets). That was down 14 percent from the preceding year, on par with the regional decline of 15 percent, to 8,309.
Since 2017, Arlington has seen a decline in the number of those recorded as homeless of 26 percent, also in line with the regional decline of 25 percent. The District of Columbia comprises about two-thirds of those counted as homeless in the survey.
(Results from the 2022 count are expected in May.)
Reducing homelessness is one thing. But eliminating it? That might seem an impossibility or at least improbability, but Toussaint said it is the ultimate goal.
“The minute you start accepting [homelessness] is the moment you give up,” he said. “We are about finding a way to move forward to help as many people as we can.”
But, he noted, “PathForward cannot do this alone.”
“You need the entire community to buy in,” Toussaint said.