Fairfax community works to fight homelessness, hunger

Yara Mowafy spearheaded the initiative to provide meals for homeless students on campus (photo by John Irwin).
Yara Mowafy spearheaded the initiative to provide meals for homeless students on campus (photo by John Irwin).

Senior Yara Mowafy first thought of the idea of donating unused meal plans to homeless students while working on a project for a communication class.

Two years later, donating meal plans is out of the question, but Mowafy has managed, along with senior Jordan Bivings, to set up a Meal Plan Assistance Fund for homeless students. The fund is located in the Office of Advancement and Alumni Affairs.

Students in need of emergency meal assis­tance are either referred to the Office of Case Management and Student Support or can self-identify to this office.

According to Mowafy, many Mason students are unaware that homelessness is an issue for other students and a problem in Fairfax County.

“There are a lot more people than we think there are that need help. The figure last year was 12, this year it is 20 students who self-identify themselves as homeless. These are the ones that are brave enough to come into the office and get help. I’m sure there are a lot more that just aren’t saying anything about this,” Mowafy said.

While Mowafy was working on her original idea of donating unused meal plans to local homeless shelters, FACETS, a non-profit that helps individuals suffering with poverty in the Fairfax area, put her in contact with Bivings, president of Mason Meals.

“She told me that through FACETS she was aware that there were Mason students who go to their shelter and identify themselves as homeless,” Mowafy said.

Bivings started Mason Meals in spring 2011 when she was in a Mason Cornerstones class and was given an assignment to work with FACETS.

“We were in shock as to how many homeless people actually live in such an affluent county like Fairfax,” Bivings said. “We decided to come up with Mason Meals.”

Bivings had also originally hoped to donate left-over meal plans to students or families in the area, but realized that wasn’t possible due to Mason dining and Sodexo restrictions.

“Finally, three years later, we have an effort that stuck, which is the Student Meal Assistance Fund,” Bivings said.

Mowafy began asking her professors if they had ever been in contact with homeless students and found out that some students had mentioned to their professors that they were indeed homeless.

“FACETS admits that they have had homeless students before. The more research I did, the more I realized that this population does exist,” Mowafy said.

According to Claire Forman, assistant director of University Advancement and Alumni Affairs, University Life and Sodexo have worked out an agreement in which University Life will distribute Southside meal vouchers to students who are in need. The money donated to the Student Meal Assistance Fund will pay for these vouchers.

Margaret Olsewska, director of Student Support and Case Management, is responsi­ble for the distribution of the vouchers.

“This fund is here for true emergencies. It’s of a very limited scope. It’s very short term, a couple of days or three days. We don’t put a time limit on it because everybody’s situation is different, but the program is here to assist students on a very limited basis,” Olsewska said.

Mowafy originally worked with Mason Dining and hoped to have unused meal plans donated, but found out that was not possible with the current budget.

“The idea of donating unused meal plans was just not possible with our contract with Sodexo. It just didn’t allow for it. We have something that is called the missing meal factor, and the budget is built around the predetermined number knowing that students are not going to use all of their meals,” Mowafy said.

Sodexo provided an in-kind donation of $1,000 to the fund.

“We worked this fall with Yara to work out the process to implement the program and follow the resolution from Student Government that by helping this program the price of the meal plan would not be increased,” said Mark Kraner, the executive director for Campus Retail Operations and Auxiliary Enterprises. “When the meal plan prices are generated the number of meals used is one factor that determines the price. If that number increases the cost of the meal plan would need to increase.”

According to Foreman, staff members who lack meal plans would have had no way to contribute to Mowafy’s original idea, but the new fund allows those who don’t have meal plans to still donate.

“This makes it a lot easier for her to explain what the program is, makes it easier for Sodexo to actually provide some assistance to these students, makes it easier for Mason to track the funds, and makes it easier for people like me who might want to make an actual cash donation to be able to do that.” Foreman said.

The Office of Student Support and Case Management deals with a wide range of student issues, which according to Olsewska, includes homelessness.

“We do have some students that are homeless in the sense that they are truly living in cars or they are couch surfing, sometimes sleeping outside or in one of our buildings. Those students, and students overall, are referred to my office a lot of times by faculty, also staff, some students self-identity,” Olsewska said.

Olsewska said she has met with four homeless students since starting her job three months ago.

“There are probably many students who are homeless that don’t identify as such, and we’ll never know about them,” Olsewska said.

Olsewska said that when meeting with a student, she discusses the student’s situation and ways university services may help.

“I do a lot of referrals. With students who are homeless we also share information about homeless shelters in the area, because that might obviously be an option for students,” Olsewska said.

Homelessness is not exclusive to Mason students, however. The Fairfax County Office to Prevent and End Homelessness was created in 2008 by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to implement the county’s ten-year plan to end homelessness. The office has reported that at least 1,534 people were homeless in Fairfax on Jan. 25, 2012.

“The ten-year plan lays out a roadmap between the adoption of the plan in 2008 to 2018 for the prevention and ending of homelessness,” said Thomas Barnett, Program Manager at the Office to Prevent and End Homelessness. “In the past, all services for the homeless were centered on meeting their basic needs of shelter­ing, but without a clear answer as to what came next, so that is really where the ten-year plan started.”

According to Jolie Smith, director of development at Shelter House, Inc., which operates several housing shelters around Fairfax County, lack of affordable housing is a major cause of homelessness in Fairfax County.

“Many lose their job, have health issues, or face domestic violence,” Smith said.

At the Katherine K. Hanley Family Shelter, operated by Shelter House, Inc., families can stay for up to 45 days. While staying at the shelter, case managers help families find permanent affordable housing.

“The focus is housing,” said Elisa Holden, senior community case manager at Shelter House, Inc. “We get them into housing first.”

Braddock Supervisor John Cook has also expressed his support for affordable housing.

“One of the things we want to do in the county is to provide housing that is affordable for people with lower incomes. The main idea there is helping to find people a place to live that they can afford on the income they are making. The private sector needs to create more housing for people at the lower-income level,” Cook said.

According to Bivings, Mason Meals will continue to help students at Mason and residents in Fairfax County.

“Our main goal now is to figure out how we can make sure that [students] know about this fund, and how we can help people in Fairfax County,” Bivings said.

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