Food pantry to address student homelessness

This story was originally published in the Feb. 9 issue of Fourth Estate.

A storage closet in Sub 1 was converted into a Pop Up Pantry to help homeless and financially unstable students. The closet houses supplies such as non-perishable food, hygiene items, coats and blankets.

The Pop Up Pantry was started by graduate student Yara Mowafy, who has been advocating for the homeless and financially insecure by addressing several different needs.

“As of November 2013, we had the Student Meal Assistance Fund. So that provides meal vouchers to students who seek them from the Office of Student Support. After that, I began doing research; it is Institutional Review Board approved research. So I’m looking to identify the prevalence and nature of homelessness and hunger at George Mason University,” Mowafy said.

Though the research is still ongoing, Mowafy said results should be released by the end of this semester.

“The research has shown us that there is a need for some sort of support or some sort of services that we’re not offering or not providing for students. And out of that, we started the Pantry,” Mowafy said.

According to Mowafy, since the pantry began in Dec. 2014, it has been used almost weekly by students in need. Donations have been made by several Mason offices, including University Life and New Century College.

“We always have food coming in, which is good because it’s always flowing out, and that also just proves to us that there is a need because the food is not just sitting there. There was a lot more stuff in that room three weeks ago, but the fact that it’s cut in half is showing us that people are really seeking this kind of resource,” Mowafy said.

According to Michael Galvin, Director of Technology Integration and Mowafy’s research partner, the hope is that the research findings will give Mason incentives to provide a larger space for the Pantry.

“That’s really what we’re doing right now: raising awareness, continuing with the research and then providing the resources that we can provide. We can’t promise housing, we can’t promise a meal plan but we can give small things,” Mowafy said.

Homelessness extends beyond the boundaries of Mason. According to the Fairfax County website, the counties of Fairfax and Falls Church have one of the highest homeless populations in Northern Virginia, second only to D.C. Fairfax has attempted to find long-term solutions for such a large homeless population by establishing the Ten Year Plan and the Office to Prevent and End Homelessness.

The Ten Year Plan began in 2008 and according to the OPEH Program Manager, Thomas Barnett, the most accurate measure for the Ten Year Plan’s success is the annual Point-in-Time count. The count documents the number of people who are living in shelters, transitional housing or on the street.

“The most recent Point-in-Time was last week, Jan. 28, so we’re all very eager to see the results of that and hopefully continue the downward trend,” Barnett said.

The 2014 Point-in-Time revealed that 1,225 people were homeless in the Fairfax-Falls Church area. There was a nine percent decline in homelessness since the 2013 count. The 2015 Point-in- Time will be released late March or early April, Barnett said.

Though the Point-in-Time survey reveals downward statistics about homelessness in the area, there are other measures that reveal there is still a problem.

“…[R]ental vacancies are down, rental prices are up, the foreclosure prices, the recession – these are all things that create housing instability for people in our community. So it’s really almost miraculous that we haven’t seen an increase in homelessness, despite the recession and the housing crisis,” Barnett said.

Large numbers of homelessness and unstable living conditions reveal a need for long-term efforts to end homelessness. According to Fairfax County’s website, a lack of affordable housing is the largest contributing factor to the area’s homeless population.

Homelessness is also not the only way to identify a problem within the community. Even though Fairfax County is consistently rated as one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, there are still 60,000 people living under the federal poverty level in Fairfax, according to Barnett.

“I think what we know is that there are many people who living unstably or on the verge of homelessness, at risk and probably sharing housing with people out of economic necessity,” Barnett said. “There was a code compliance enforcement aspect that came into play a number of years ago, making sure that people were safe. There were issues of boarding homes that didn’t have proper exits in case of a fire, so people were literally chopping up basements and renting them out to multiple people. It was completely unsafe but it speaks to this sort of a need for affordable and safe housing.”

Photo credit: Amy Podraza