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A snapshot of growing homelessness in wealthy Loudoun County

A person in a tan jacket is seen standing outside of a building.
Margaret Barthel

Whitney Settles is like a lot of people you meet in Northern Virginia. She’s about to start a new job, with hopes of becoming a manager. She has dreams of running her own landscaping business, a traditionally male field she thinks could use some female leadership. She’s a mom who’s proud of how great her kids are (and tries to keep up with them making Tik Tok videos).

“I don’t even understand how they’re so good,” she says. “They’re smart. They’re respectful. They’re kind, considerate, like, they’re good people.”

Settles and two of her kids are also currently without a home. They’ve been that way since November 2022, when Settles’ mom, a former federal government employee with whom they were staying, lost her home in Aldie.

Right now, the three of them are living in Loudoun’s Homeless Services Center, the county’s shelter in Leesburg. From there, Settles is trying to do nothing less than break her family’s cycle of homelessness: with the help of a case manager, she’s trying to find housing, get a good-paying job, keep herself from relapsing into drug addiction, work on herself in therapy, and support her kids.

Some of those tasks are easier than others. She’s seeing a county mental health worker already, and she’s thoughtful about helping her kids stay resilient. She’s starting a new job at Papa John’s, a location she can get to on the bus, with some careful strategic planning. She’s grateful for the job — some employers rejected her because of the drug possession and petit larceny charges on her record — but knows the $15 per hour wage won’t go far in an expensive place like Loudoun.

That makes the cornerstone of a fresh start — a new home — feel out of reach.

“It’s so fun to look at these apartments, but they’re so expensive,” Settles says. There are rapid rehousing programs and rental assistance from local churches and nonprofits, but “even before you get to that point, everybody so far wants a 660 credit score and to make three times the rent amount.”

Settles pauses.

“A lot of times it feels hopeless, but I’m still trying,” she says. “Something’s got to give. I’m not the only person in this situation.”

Tracking increasing homelessness in the suburbs

Settles is unhoused in the wealthiest county in the country, as measured by average household income. But like much of Northern Virginia, Loudoun is a place of contrasts, home to wineries, country clubs, big mansions — and also real poverty, if you know where to look for it.

“It doesn’t look like a problem in the suburbs because you can’t see it,” says Joe Meyer, the president and CEO of Shelter House, a nonprofit that operates the Loudoun homeless shelter and several more in Fairfax. “So many of the people that become homeless in the suburbs are working. The kids are in school … even the singles are working.”

“They’re likely your colleagues that you’re just unaware of,” says Megan Hansen, who directs the Loudoun shelter for Shelter House. “They’re … like the mother and daughter duo that just have come across the death of their sole provider. And they both are employed, and they’re operating out of the one car and living outside of the airport in what they feel is like the safest parking lot they can stay in.”

But if it’s mostly unseen, Settles’ story is increasingly not unique in the suburbs and exurbs. Homelessness is rising across the D.C. region, including in more rural areas beyond the suburbs, which saw some of the most marked increases in last year’s Point-In-Time count, a regional census of unhoused people conducted in a single night in January.

This year’s count took place on Wednesday night. In Loudoun, that meant a group of about sixty people – county staff, nonprofit workers, and volunteers, including some who have experienced homelessness themselves — fanning out in cars across the county. Their goal was to find people who are currently unhoused, survey them, and offer them services and basic items like warm clothes, toiletries, blankets, and gift cards.

The teams focus on libraries and parks, known places in the county where unhoused people congregate. But the county’s sheer size, at 500 square miles, makes the endeavor a challenge, according to Sarah Tuggle, the county’s homeless assistance team supervisor, who was part of a team covering the Route 15 corridor from Leesburg to Lovettsville.

“We look for vehicles that are, you know, standing alone [in parking lots],” Tuggle says. “In the rural communities, it’s very dark out there, and [there are] heavily wooded areas. But we do know there are people that are living in those places.”

The results of the count, when they come back in a few months, will add another year of data to what county staff and nonprofit partners know about homelessness in Loudoun, ideally also helping them tailor their response to it.

Between January 2022 and January 2023, Loudoun saw a 122% increase in homelessness, from 99 people to more than 220, according to last year’s count. That sounds particularly dire, but county staff say that the overall data picture shows that homelessness has been rising in line with the county’s population growth over the past five years.

“When it’s contextualized across the larger perspective, it’s been incremental over time,” says Ryan Harrison, the county’s assistant director of public assistance and support in the Department of Family Services (he oversees the shelter).

Harrison, who previously worked in homeless services in Prince George’s County, Md., said another finding from last year particularly stuck out: a third of the people in Loudoun’s 2023 count were experiencing homelessness for the first time.

“That [number] is a direct reflection of rent escalation … with stagnant wages,” Harrison says.

Information from last year’s count led the county to focus more attention on programs to prevent evictions. Those have been increasing across Virginia since the end of the pandemic-era eviction moratorium, though in Loudoun they have not yet returned to their pre-pandemic levels, according to data from Virginia Commonwealth University’s RVA Eviction Lab. Harrison says he’ll be monitoring this year’s Point In Time Count results for similar clues to fine-tune the county’s response.

‘The challenge we’re all facing’

For Harrison, Tuggle, Meyer and Hansen, there’s one clear, overarching factor driving homelessness in Loudoun and everywhere across the D.C. region: housing prices are impossibly high and getting higher.

“Affordable housing is the tie that binds,” Harrison puts it. “That is the challenge that we’re all facing across the metropolitan area.”

The average rental price in Loudoun is $2,147 per month, according to the website RentCafe. This year, the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors predict that the median price of a single-family home in the county will crack $1 million for the first time.

The county’s goal is to have every person who loses housing to be re-housed in 30-60 days, but that’s complicated by high costs. Hansen, with Shelter House, says rent prices are routinely over what the federal government sets as the “fair market rate” for different apartment sizes in the area. (That numberalso determines whether and what the federal government is willing to pay in housing assistance across a range of programs.) In one Leesburg zip code, for instance, fair market rent is over $1,800 for a one-bedroom and over $2,500 for a three-bedroom.

“It’s hard for us to be competitive,” Hansen says. “You have to also factor in the utilities [and other costs]. So you actually even need [the price] to be probably $200 below [fair market], unless all utilities are included.”

High prices have meant county staff have had to “get creative” in order to find places for people to live, according to Harrison and Tuggle. Tuggle and her staff routinely scour community ad boards and reach out to local businesses and faith-based organizations to find places for people. Sometimes, they offer to help clients find housing outside of Loudoun County entirely.

“We use our resources to support them in that effort,” Tuggle says. “In instances where they want to stay locally because Loudoun is such a great place to live, we explore so many options to try to make that happen for them.”

The county is midway through its five-year Unmet Housing Needs Strategic Plan, a host of strategies designed to preserve and create housing affordable to households making less than Loudoun’s area median income (more than $150,000 for a family of four). The plan sets a goal of making 20% of all housing created in Loudoun over the next two decades — more than 8,000 units — be affordable, through a combination of developer commitments, preservation of naturally-affordable older buildings, use of county land to build affordable housing, and more. The Board of Supervisors recently updated the county’s zoning ordinance to expand requirements and incentives for developers building new apartments to include affordable ones.

In the meantime, Whitney Settles is still searching for a home — and trying not to feel demoralized by her search. She dreams of a program that would offer her housing and training in a career, with a pathway to a good job afterwards. But until that materializes, all she can do is keep going and encourage others to do the same.

“For other people like me, just to keep doing the right things and be patient,” she says. “It has to work out.”

Margaret Barthel is the Northern Virginia Reporter at WAMU/DCist.