Wednesday, October 18, 2023
The Lamb Center in Fairfax City is a daytime, drop-in shelter offering meals, showers, clothing, laundry services, housing searches, plus recovery and employment counseling, to poor and unhoused people. And during its fundraising banquet Oct. 5 at the Fairview Park Marriott, attendees learned about this nonprofit’s mission, successes and continuing needs.
Before they ate, the Rev. Vernon Walton of First Baptist Church of Vienna asked God to help everyone there “be mindful of those who do not have food to eat, shelter or clothing. We pray that our gathering challenges each of us to advocate for those who are the least among us.”
Then City Councilmember Tom Ross honored his longtime friend and mentor, former City Mayor John Mason and his wife Jeanette. In May, the Masons celebrated their 60th anniversary by inspiring their community to rally together and raise more than $11,000 for The Lamb Center.
“The Lamb Center’s mission and this City hold a special place in the Masons’ hearts, and they chose to commemorate their joyful occasion by giving back,” said Ross. “They exemplify the true essence of community spirit, uniting and catalyzing action for the betterment of our homeless neighbors. Their generosity warms our hearts, and we sincerely thank them.”
Keynote speaker was Kamilah McAfee, president and CEO of Wesley Housing, a nonprofit dedicated to providing quality affording housing. However, she said, “It’s not just about the bricks and mortar, but about how we, as a community, extend compassion and care to our neighbors.”
As a mother, she compared the children’s game of musical chairs – where those reaching the chairs first win – to life. “This mirrors the privilege many of us have in securing safe and decent homes in our communities,” she explained. “Those with greater financial resources have more choices, while the most vulnerable among us have the fewest opportunities.”
In a community where shelter options are scarce, said McAfee, “Far too many are left behind. The most recent, point-in-time count for Fairfax County indicated over 1,300 individuals chronically left behind – an increase of over 10 percent over the prior year.”
“Wesley Housing has a longstanding commitment to addressing housing needs for our most vulnerable community members,” she continued. “But when [The Lamb Center] approached us in early 2022 to partner with them on their [Beacon Landing] project to develop 54 units of permanent, supportive housing, my first instinct was not to say yes. We had a number of other, priority projects underway and we know the immense challenges of multilayered financing, addressing community concerns and navigating complex operational needs.”
However, stressed McAfee, “I truly believe Divine intervention advanced this project to the very top in the way it moved so many people’s hearts and minds and committed them to this cause.” She said affordable-housing projects require “champions and partners” to help them cross the finish line, and average 5-7 years to do so.
“From conception to completion, it takes a tremendous amount of patience and perseverance,” said McAfee. “But over the past 20 months, I’ve been astounded by the swift progress we’ve made on Beacon Landing.” She then praised the Wesley/The Lamb Center team, as well as “wide-ranging community support,” plus the City’s efficient approvals process and early commitment of financing necessary to secure the county resources required to obtain state and federal money.
McAfee also thanked former and current Fairfax City Mayors, David Meyer and Catherine Read, City Council, the county’s Board of Supervisors, and Tom Fleetwood, director of the county’s Redevelopment and Housing Authority. In addition, she thanked Virginia Housing, Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-11th) for “adding chairs, instead of removing them, when the music stopped.”
She said nationwide data and studies show that when people receive permanent, supportive housing first – and then the services they need to address underlying and often persistent trauma – they tend to remain housed, many years later. “Thank you all for being part of this journey,” said McAfee. “We look forward to our shared commitment to Hope and a Future [the banquet’s theme] being realized through Beacon Landing.”
Jennifer Edwards, The Lamb Center’s intake coordinator, said she needs to ask new arrivals deeply personal questions about their life history and current challenges, while trying to develop trust and rapport with them in a short time. “Sometimes, we cry together; sometimes, we pray together,” she said. “And sometimes, we even find something we can laugh about. After that, I share information about our services and guidelines, invite them to join our support groups and connect them with a case manager.”
Edwards also helps guests apply for food and medical benefits, plus vital documents such as their birth certificates and I.D. and Social Security cards. Since their journey to housing can easily take a year, TLC offers them job opportunities and connects them to other community resources.
“People often ask me how I can do this work,” said Edwards. “There are days when I go home in tears; But it’s an absolute privilege to take this first step with our guests. I hold their stories close to my heart and I pray over them every day. But the Lord is with me, every step of the way, and I rely on our team of experienced case managers for support and guidance.”
When people contribute to The Lamb Center, she said, they help the guests feel seen, heard and valued by the community. With financial support, said Edwards, “We can connect them to the resources they need to move toward housing, employment and greater self-sufficiency.”
TLC Executive Director Tara Ruszkowski said the facility served a record 1,821 individuals last year. “Sadly, many of the new guests we’re seeing are elderly – some with disabilities, chronic diseases and other health and mobility challenges,” she explained. She attributed the increase in homelessness to the ending of pandemic-fueled, emergency-housing programs and eviction moratoriums.
“It’s been said that TLC is ‘God’s emergency room,’ and we embrace the opportunities to serve and welcome folks and be a place of healing and transformation,” said Ruszkowski. “To meet the higher demand, we’re expanding our staff and programming and also added a pastoral director to ensure the heart of our ministry remains rooted in God’s love.”
Calling Beacon Landing the centerpiece of The Lamb Center’s expansion, she thanked Wesley for saying yes to their partnership. “The old Hy-Way Motel will be demolished, probably in March 2024; then that fall, the new building will break ground,” said Ruszkowski. “Construction is expected to take about 24 months, so we look to early 2026 for the first residents to move in.
“But tonight is about helping TLC meet today’s needs, as we navigate increased demand for meals, showers, medical and dental services, and case management. There’s no Lamb Center without you – gifts from individuals cover the largest share of our operating expenses. Thank you for your generosity and prayers.” Lamb Center Board member and volunteer Shannon Allen said guests’ success stories (see sidebar) inspire and challenge everyone there. And she thanked the “army of volunteers who mobilize daily to help the most vulnerable among us,” plus TLC staff “who serve our guests with wisdom, love and compassionate hearts.”
Last year, The Lamb Center served 30,488 meals, 151 people received health-clinic appointments, 69 got dental care, 37 participated in the City Jobs program (where they’re paid for work done for Fairfax City), and 65 moved into permanent housing. But none of these things can happen, said Allen, unless those needing help walk inside the building.
“TLC’s front door is a powerful symbol of hope,” she said. “The choice to enter is offered to every person, no matter their look, language or story. People line up there before the day even begins. No one looks alike, and they all carry different burdens – and yet, they’re united by hopeful anticipation. TLC is doing valuable, lifegiving work, but it needs the community to help keep that door open.”
In his closing prayer, Deacon Dave Larrabee, TLC’s pastoral director, asked God to “keep all our guests safe while they’re outside, and lift up our journey to permanent, supportive housing.”
To donate to TLC, go to thelambcenter.org/give