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Amid coronavirus crisis, county relocates overnight homeless shelter to larger space

Nonprofit StreetLight Ministries seeks donations to house elderly, medically fragile homeless

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Homeless clients relocate to the Ferlazzo building

People board a PRTC bus to the A.J. Ferlazzo building in Woodbridge, where Prince William County officials relocated the adult overnight shelter to allow homeless clients to maintain social distancing during the ongoing coronavirus crisis. 

Some of Prince William’s most vulnerable residents had a new place to sleep last night.

About four dozen homeless people who had been staying at the county’s overnight shelter were transferred to a larger space the A.J. Ferlazzo Building, while some chronically ill homeless residents were temporarily housed in a local hotel.

The changes are part of the county’s effort to enforce “social distancing” in buildings and facilities amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

“I’m excited that we’ve moved them into a bigger space where they’re more protected,” said Rose Powers, executive director of StreetLight Community Ministries, which operates the shelter for the county.

The emergency overnight shelter, located in a modest, house-sized building off Telegraph Road in Woodbridge, has a usual capacity of 48 people. But the space is tight, and keeping homeless clients 6 feet apart there was impossible.

That’s why StreetLight made finding a bigger space a priority this week. 

With the help of the county’s Department of Social Services, as well as public works and several homeless residents themselves who pitched in to help, StreetLight relocated the overnight shelter  to the Ferlazzo gymnasium Thursday night.

It was no small task. The move required pulling cots out of county storage; setting up partitions; transferring linens, blankets, tables, chairs, food and supplies; and outfitting the gymnasium with extra power, computers and cable TV, Powers said. 

But the work was accomplished in just two days’ time.  

“It was really the county that rose to the occasion to get it all done,” Powers said. 

Even better, Powers said, is that StreetLight Ministries’ donors raised enough money in 24 hours to pay for hotel rooms for six of the shelter’s most vulnerable clients -- all older residents with chronic health conditions. 

Powers put out an appeal for donations on StreetLight’s Facebook page Thursday morning. By 5 p.m., about $1,100 had come in -- enough to keep the medically fragile clients in hotel rooms for the next few days.

StreetLight hopes to raise about $10,000 more, which would be enough to provide hotel rooms for the next month for its chronically ill and elderly homeless clients who should not be in a shelter environment during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Donations can be made on StreetLight Ministries’ website.

“One man can hardly walk a few steps before he is so exhausted and out of breath that he has to sit down and rest. Another woman uses a walker. All seven are very weak,” Powers wrote in her Facebook post.

One of the men Powers had hoped to house in a hotel did not show up at the shelter Thursday night. But the other six were grateful for the offer of a hotel stay, Powers said.

“One woman was so panicked” about staying in the shelter amid the coronavirus pandemic, Powers said. “She was in tears when she found out she was going into a hotel. … They couldn’t stop thanking me. They were very, very grateful.”

The other homeless clients took the transfer to the Ferlazzo building well, Powers said.

Prince William County’s Department of Social Services Director Courtney Tierney said the need to relocate the shelter became clear Tuesday, when state officials mandated social distancing in public places. 

The number of confirmed or presumptive positive cases of the coronavirus in Prince William County rose to 11 on Thursday. 

“If we did social distancing at the overnight shelter, we would not be able to serve the same number of people,” Tierney said. “In order to do that, we had to change the location.”

The Ferlazzo building, located at Cardinal Drive and U.S. 1 in Woodbridge, originally housed Gar-Field High School and then Saunders Middle School until both moved to larger buildings.

The building is now used for county offices, including the Department of Social Services. But it still has a gymnasium with bathrooms and showers and is adjacent to the county’s eastern district police station.

The Potomac Rappahannock Transportation Commission used of one of its buses to transport the homeless clients from the overnight shelter to the Ferlazzo building. 

The shelter is open from 6:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. daily. In the morning, the buses will transport the homeless clients back to the overnight shelter so those who are not working can spend the morning hours at the county’s homeless prevention drop-in center if they want to.

To ensure social distancing, the county is looking to expand the drop-in space as well, perhaps by setting up a large tent for the homeless residents. The county provides programs, laundry and other services at the drop-in center, which is within walking distance from the overnight shelter.

Transferring the shelter to the Ferlazzo building did not require an infusion of funding, Tierney said, because the county used existing staff and resources. Tierney said county leaders were very supportive of the idea.

“It hasn’t been a ‘you can’t’ type of situation. It’s been a ‘let’s go ahead and get it done’ situation,” Tierney said. “There was no pause to think about not doing this. This was the right thing to do for this population.”

Volunteers from a local church served dinner to the homeless clients after they arrived at the Ferlazzo building, which is the normal routine, Powers said.

Asked if the new shelter location needs donations of food or supplies from the community, Tierney said not yet.

“I would say right now we’re in pretty good shape. We know how kind and generous the community is, but we’re not in a situation where we can accept and store a lot of things,” Tierney said. “If we get low, we’ll let people know.”

Reach Jill Palermo at

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