A GoFundMe is helping a Restonian experiencing homelessness afford shelter

Reston community members have set up a GoFundMe to help an individual experiencing homelessness pay for a local hotel room.

On a sunny May morning, 62-year-old Mark sat on the curb at the back of Target’s parking lot on Sunset Hills Road in Reston.

When a gray Honda CR-V pulls up in front of him, he smiles and waves. The car’s window comes down, he stands up, limping to the car. The woman inside hands Mark some money.

“God bless you,” Mark said.

“Your smile makes me happy,” the woman responded.

“I love to see them smile back,” Mark said, sitting back on the curb as the woman drives away. “It’s a little bit of interaction.”

With his balloons, signs, and a smile, Mark — who asked Reston Now not use his last name out of privacy concerns — has become a well-known fixture at this spot. He has been sitting there six days a week, with Mondays off, since he started experienced homelessness five years ago, going on six.

Earlier this year, Oak Hill resident David Ritter set up a GoFundMe to assist Mark in paying for a room at a nearby hotel. Currently, the fundraiser amassed over $900, but it has a goal of $10,000.

Ritter tells Reston Now he’s helping because he’s gotten to know Mark over the last several years.

“A lot of homeless people don’t interact, don’t engage, and are not positive like Mark,” Ritter said. “I think that’s a testament to his character.”

Mark tells Reston Now that he’s a veteran and a Columbia University medical school graduate who has a past criminal record that has prevented him from getting a job.

“I’ve sent out 1,500 job applications in five years,” Mark said. “Nobody will hire me…The computer probably just spits it out once you check that box.”

He also has physical limitations stemming from diabetes, a bad hip, and a shoulder surgery gone bad, putting his left arm in a sling. He additionally suffers from bipolar disorder. He says he’s applied for disability and is still waiting to hear back about help.

Behind the smile and loquacious nature, Mark admits that the difficulty of his situation can affect his mental health.

“It’s definitely difficult at times,” he said. “I’m bipolar. I can have massive depression episodes. I go down hard.”

In general, Mark says, people are very kind to him.

The nearby Sunoco gas station owns the land where he sits, Mark says, and they let him sit there every day (Reston Now independently verified this with Sunoco). Target employees are also very nice, teasingly calling him the “goodbye person” since he waves to everyone exiting the parking lot.

He says Fairfax County police check in on him regularly, always treating him with respect and dignity.

And people in cars often stop to give a few dollars, food, and other supplies. On good days, he says he makes about a hundred dollars a day.

Over the course of his hour-long interview with Reston Now, no less than six people in cars stop to help Mark out. He greets everyone with a wave, a smile, and a hearty thank you.

“I get a lot of food from Target and all the restaurants from around here,” he says, chuckling. “I haven’t had to buy my own lunch or dinner in a long time.”

The hope with the GoFundMe is that it would provide Mark the means to get a room every night at the local hotel where he’s staying.

“We thought using the GoFundMe would get people to donate who otherwise wouldn’t,” Ritter said. “By [setting it up] for hotel costs, it might be easier for people to donate.”

Mark acknowledges that there are days that he either can’t afford the hotel or it’s completely full. In those cases, he sleeps in his tent in the nearby woods.

He says he has been in contact with Cornerstones, the nonprofit that runs the Embry Rucker Community Shelter on Bowman Towne Drive in Reston. He says he’s been working with them, but nothing has come of it as of yet.

While Cornerstones does not speak about individual cases due to privacy concerns, they say that they are aware of pretty much all of residents experiencing homelessness in the community.

They are constantly looking to help these individuals with both temporary and permanent housing, though demand has increased over the last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cornerstones is currently partnering with a hotel in Herndon to provide additional housing for those in need, but there is a wait list based on priority, which is often determined by health issues, rather than income or employment, Cornerstones Director of Homeless Services Khristina Koontz says.

“Our goal is housing first,” Koontz said. “The client doesn’t have to be employed to move into housing…That’s why they [will get] a case manager, to help with the employment piece or whatever [income] needs they have.”

Beyond the pandemic, the ability for people to afford housing in the Reston/Herndon area has been increasingly difficult in recent years.

“There is inadequate affordable housing across the region and that’s a known,” Cornerstones Marketing Director Margaret Anne Lara said. “That’s who Cornerstones services…low-to-moderate income individuals…that have been completely priced out.”

Mark dreams not only of having an apartment, but also a job.

“I mean, just having an apartment, you’re going to be bored to death,” Mark said.

He says sometimes people do yell at him to get a job, to which he simply responds with a wave and a quip that he’s “tried that.”

Mark is grateful for all the help he’s gotten so far from Ritter and everyone else who provides money, food, and other supplies, but it can be exhausting, demoralizing, and dangerous. Mark says he’s been assaulted three times by individuals.

“Most people seem to treat me the way I treat them, though,” he said.

Just then, a truck pulls up and a man puts down his window. Mark smiles, waves, and walks to the truck. The man hands him a few bills.

“God bless you,” Mark says.

The man drives away and Mark sits back on the curb.

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