Coming to terms with the city’s homeless problem

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Coming to terms with the city’s homeless problem
Previous coverage:

Hope Community Center helps get jobs for two homeless
Follow-up

Residents question Hope shelter [April 22]
Edwards: Haven’t talked about homelessness in “comprehensive” way

Area homeless numbers rise [April 8]
Children counted doubles

I first wrote about area poverty and homelessness a little more than a year ago, and that is when I met Tom Shadyac. Back in June 2007, the long-haired film director stood in the sanctuary of the First Street Christian Church off Market Street and explained why he had bought the 100-year-old chapel to be a resource center for the homeless and nearly homeless, people with no other place to turn.

“I have a burden for wherever there’s a need and there’s a need in this community,” he told me at the time, stressing that in Charlottesville “the problem was very solvable, as opposed to a place like L.A. where there’s tens of thousands of homeless.”

A year later, I have written around 20 articles on the homeless and the city and community’s response to their increasing presence. This piece started out as another musing on the problem—this time addressing the lack of an immediate plan for the homeless that are living outside right now—but more than 7,000 words later, I feel nowhere closer to a coherent statement. It is frustrating, like the subject itself, to the point that I feel worn out and tired of talking about it.


When Hope’s shelter shut down, James moved under the bridge on Preston Avenue, but was repeatedly chased off by police for trespassing, then finally arrested. Now, he sleeps in a wooded spot he hopes police will not find.

So instead, I have compiled a glossary of local people, places, and things—trees in the forlorn forest—that will hopefully give some insight into the continuing conundrum of Charlottesville’s homeless population and how best to treat them. In alphabetical order:   

Affordable housing

In the last decade, the city embarked on a campaign to attract upper and middle class residents inside the boundaries of Charlottesville, an effort that, coupled with market forces, proved remarkably successful in luring a more affluent populace to town that transformed the Downtown Mall into a commercial center in the process. It also raised housing prices to extraordinary highs—between 2000 and 2006 the median sales price nearly doubled—that forced the poorer of its citizens out of town or onto the streets. In 2004, the transformation was completed when the town was named the best place to live in the USA by Frommer’s Cities Ranked & Rated. Simultaneously, its authors noted in passing that the high housing prices were the sole “negative and directly reflect the quality of life and resistance to sprawl.”
 
“The same reasons that made us a Number 1 city are the reasons now that we’re not,” says City Councilor Holly Edwards. At this point, everyone seems to agree Charlottesville needs some cheaper places to live. “That was my primary motivation for being on City Council,” city Mayor Dave Norris says, “the fact that we were not doing enough.”

Since his arrival on Council, Charlottesville has pledged more and more money to developing less expensive residences, from $400,000 the year before he arrived to over $1.4 million this year. “It’s been a struggle,” says Norris, who is also the executive director of a winter homeless shelter called PACEM. In reality, it will likely take the area years to reverse the efforts that made our town the No. 1 place to buy a tony residence—that’s if the city even wants to change.

“There’s an institutional aversion to addressing affordable housing in the city,” Norris says. “I’ve heard very high up people in the city say if we build more affordable housing, it’s just going to draw more poor people to the city.”

Bare, Josh 

With bright red hair and a perpetually toothy smile, the 28-year-old former director of the Hope Community Center homeless evening shelter is now the face of the effort to cure homelessness in this area, thanks in part to media coverage and his own marketing savvy. “Josh really loved that media attention,” says Lynn Wiber, who stayed at Hope for a couple months.

Part of young Bare’s appeal also comes from his overflowing optimism. Oddly enough, he actually seems to be having fun helping out the downtrodden and screw-ups, and when he’s around, they can’t help but be inspired. Back in the day—like in Old Testament times—he would have marshaled and led them into some sort of battle.

Perhaps that sort of biblical exuberance drove him and his father Harold in their efforts to house the refugees of society starting in December. The self-belief that comes from feeling the Lord is on your side also contributed to a perception amongst homeless service providers and the City Council that he and his father wanted to go it alone.

“There’s a difference between doing God’s work and doing God’s will,” says Edwards. “Doing God’s will means doing things decently and in order and that means following the law. The difference between doing things right and doing the right thing was clearly providing a place for the homeless but doing things right would have meant going through the process even if you don’t agree with that process.”
 
When Hope closed in late May—after a protracted battle with the city—Bare was suddenly out of work, like most of his clients. As a result of the spotlight given to Hope, a private donor has come forward with funds in the last few weeks so that Bare can be paid once again to work with the homeless. A few nights ago, I rode around with him as he distributed sleeping bags, pads, and tents to former residents, as well as a dose of optimism. “My goal is to be supportive, encouraging, and a resource,” he says.

City of Charlottesville

Ten years ago, the City of Charlottesville took a not-so-subtle measure to reduce the number of homeless who had taken to sleeping on the benches of the Downtown Mall. They simply replaced the standard bench that seats two people with one smaller in width, thus making it impossible to lie down on. Problem solved. In 2006, the city took a seemingly similar action that some charge was to try and disperse the vagrants and bums hanging out in Lee Park. They turned off its sole water fountain (a Parks and Rec official says the water was cut off in Lee as well as other parks the last two summers “due to drought restrictions and/or proactive water conservation measures”).

Either way, those two measures seem to summarize the passive-aggressive way the city as an official entity has dealt with the homeless. “Where we are now is because homelessness has not been addressed and vocalized by the city,” says Edwards.


Paul was also at Hope’s shelter but is now living with a female friend in a small tent village hidden in the woods near the Rivanna River.

When the city does take on the homeless, it seems to do so indirectly. As the branch of the city government responsible for enforcing zoning violations, Neighborhood Development Services has been directly involved in shutting down at least three attempts to house the homeless in the last nine months.
 
“I do think we have a certain responsibility to help people,” says City Councilor Julian Taliaferro. For now, some of that load will fall to the community at large, individual citizens that are willing and want to help in whatever way they can. “How many people have an extra room in their homes?” asks Edwards.

Edwards, Holly

Of the five city councilors (besides Norris and Taliaferro, Satyendra Huja and David Brown sit on the all-Democrat Council), only Edwards visited the homeless evening shelter at the Hope Community Center. “The first time, I went to check on the people staying there and check it out,” she says. Edwards has volunteered at the nearby Westhaven nursing clinic for the past six years and says she saw some familiar faces at the shelter as well as some new ones.

“The second was to see how the Bares were doing, since they were beginning to feel the pressure of some of the negative comments.” The third time she was invited to attend the ceremony marking Hope’s final night. “Each time I went there was a sense of surprise,” she says. “‘You really came, thank you for being here.’ It was genuine, I felt humbled.”

Only elected to Council in November, Edwards is a longtime community activist and advocate for the poor and disenfranchised. “There’s such a negative connotation around being homeless,” she says. “We really need to pull away from the stereotypes and our own vision of what we perceive homeless to be. That fear, plus the price of gas and groceries, means a lot of people are struggling.”

First Street Church

In town to film Evan Almighty, the director (and UVA grad) Tom Shadyac dropped in on a living wage meeting over at UVA and decided to do something to help, something quite dramatic it turned out. In March of last year, he purchased the old First Street Christian Church for $2.4 million and received a special-use permit to operate its sizeable basement as a day shelter (to be run by COMPASS Day Haven). However, an internal dispute left COMPASS out of the mix and construction delays have further derailed a project whose opening is still up in the air.

Other than recently hiring a project director, about all that can be said about the dormant church is that it continues to have steering committee meetings. There is still no one to run the proposed day shelter and, like the rest of the related entities, there are no homeless actually involved in its direction.

“I wish I could get a group of homeless together to do it,” says Lynn Wiber. “That’s the only way we’re going to get something done.” 

The homeless

Homelessness first came to America’s attention in the 1980s as the cost of housing began to skyrocket (and mental institutions were cleared out in the 1970s) and the streets of our major cities became crowded with panhandlers and beggars. In Charlottesville, the crisis was slower to develop, but by 1998, there were enough people living out on our small city streets that the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless (TJACH) was formed. Ten years later, Charlottesville has a healthy homeless population that is by official estimates around 300, but one that others like Erik Speer (of COMPASS) put around 2,000.

Either way, the area homeless are a diverse population. Some are alcoholics like James who was sleeping under the bridge on Preston Avenue ever since Hope shut. Each night a bike cop chased him and a couple buddies off, and then finally arrested him when he kept coming back. Now he owes the city $116.

Then there is a man who goes by the name of New Orleans, a refugee of Hurricane Katrina who has been sleeping at an undisclosed spot off the Downtown Mall while his girlfriend works the night shift cleaning over at the UVA Hospital. During the day, she is forced to look for cover from the sun and heat so she can rest before heading back over to work.

(If you’re a homeless woman, things can be particularly rough in some practical ways. “For the women it’s just a different ballgame,” says Edwards. “What do you do when you’re homeless and your period starts? What if you get pregnant?”)  

I first met another homeless man named Tony on Hope’s last night but recently found him over at the Salvation Army, where he came to eat a free dinner. The Northern Virginian only stayed at Hope its last two nights and has been sleeping outside since, while waiting for a hip replacement at UVA hospital. “This is a nice place, nice people, unreal,” he said of our city while leaning on a cane. “Not like Manassas, I may not go back.”

The homeless are not going anywhere. If anything, they will only increase as the cost of living continues to go up and the economy down. In this area, The Daily Progress has just laid off 25 people, while only weeks ago one of our largest employers, Lexis Nexis, canned 18 more. Where will their former employees go and what will they do? If they can’t pay rent, where will they live?

Norris, Dave

The 38-year-old mayor of Charlottesville is also the executive director of PACEM, a winter evening shelter for the homeless that he has run since it opened in November 2004. “I just looked in the paper and saw this ad for a brand new organization that had an idea that needed to be implemented,” he says. “That’s the kind of challenge I really enjoy, taking new ideas and meeting a real concrete need.”

His success as PACEM’s executive director appropriately raised the profile of Norris, who ran for City Council and won a spot in 2006 on a social justice platform. Immediately, he used the new forum to attack what he saw as the root cause of homelessness, the lack of affordable housing in this city. “That was my primary motivation for being on City Council,” he says, “the fact that we were not doing enough.”

Curiously, he has steered clear of directly addressing the topic of homelessness while on Council, a decision he says was intentional. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed on City Council and in the eyes of the community as having a one-track mind, as my only agenda is homelessness,” he explains. “And part of the reason the affordable housing message has so much public support is the fact that it goes well beyond the needs of the homeless. It’s touching every aspect and part of this community.”

Recusing himself has opened the mayor up to criticism over the closing of Hope. “It seems there’s an impression in certain quarters that I ran for City Council in order to be a ‘homeless advocate’ on Council,” Norris writes in an e-mail exchange. “And that by not intervening to allow the Hope Shelter to violate City codes (as if I even had the power to do that, which I do not), I have ‘forgotten’ why it is that I ran for Council.
 
“While I make my living as the executive director of a homeless ministry, and while I am proud of the significant and unprecedented gains that we have made (and will hopefully continue to make) to combat homelessness and promote affordable housing in Charlottesville during my time on Council, my public-policy interests have always been much broader than homelessness. We have 40,000 residents of this city and I do my best (which sometimes isn’t enough) to represent and balance the interests of them all.”

“Dave always tries to do the right thing,” says Lynn Wiber of the man she considers one of her best friends. “He probably could have been a real agent for change if he’d tried to get the community together maybe this one time. But he’s no different from anybody else in that he wants a career and he wants his life to move forward, so he may be distancing himself, which is why he doesn’t want to be the homeless czar. Unfortunately, nobody else does either.”

PACEM

Created to address a gap identified by TJACH, PACEM satisfied the need for an evening emergency shelter in the winter months. When it opened in the winter of ’04, the only homeless shelter in town was the Salvation Army, which was always full.

Based on a model out of Richmond, PACEM was structurally organized as the umbrella organization for a conglomeration of area churches that would put up the homeless for a week or two during the nights. Between 5pm and 6pm, overnight guests would check in at a central spot and then be driven to whatever church was hosting that particular week. Once there, men (and women, two years later) could dine on donated food and then crash on fold-up canvas cots. By 7 the next morning, they were dumped back out onto the streets.
  
Since it opened, PACEM has fulfilled that role, and very well. “The first year we were begging churches to open up their doors,” Norris says. From that first winter, the shelter’s homeless numbers jumped, reaching a high of 237 two of the most recent years. No one perished in the cold, and they now have so many churches that want to partake that some must be turned away.

Even so, this past winter, PACEM saw its numbers dip down to 166, largely due to the rise of Hope. Related to that is the fact that Hope’s shelter was in a fixed spot, and as such more of a reliable home than a roving shelter. With PACEM, one week you could be staying at a church in the city, the next out on Proffit Road. “It’s hard to keep a job when you’re being moved all over the place,” says Wiber.

SRO

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a chronically homeless person is “an unaccompanied disabled individual who has been continuously homeless for over one year.” That differs from a good section of the homeless who seem to drift in and out of stable living arrangements. “We’re talking a few dozen people that have been out on the streets for an extended period of time, with mental and physical disabilities, and substance addiction,” says Norris. “We’re always going to have people that fall into homelessness, episodic homeless, but for the chronically homeless, we don’t have to have them. If we have the adequate stock of affordable housing and services then we can end chronic homeless.”
 
One of the leading ideas to “end” chronic homelessness is through the building of Single Resident Occupancy (SRO) housing. In decades past, SROs were a nice way to describe flophouses, but in recent years have become the term for permanent housing for the worst of the homeless. Now, one may be headed to Charlottesville. In coordination with a group called Virginia Supportive Housing (VSH), the city would develop and manage a facility that could potentially offer 60 efficiency apartments that are available at low cost to the so-called chronic homeless, “with on-site support services and security to help keep the SRO residents stable in their housing.”

While Charlottesville is at least two years away from an SRO, VSH currently has SRO facilities in Richmond and the South Hampton area that are advertised as a “proven, permanent solution for homelessness.” Even so, the former capital of the Confederacy—with around 1,200 homeless overall—currently has two SROs that are filled up. “We could probably use another,” a VSH rep said.

10th and Page

The Hope Community Center is located in the historically black 10th and Page neighborhood behind Venable Elementary School where for decades a fence was erected right behind where the center is now to keep blacks from the whites on the other side.  

Almost 70 years later, the homeless are now on the other side of that fence and it happened to them in a historically black neighborhood. A month before Hope shut down, a group of its residential neighbors gathered to express their outrage about the center and at the city for letting it remain open.

“There was something therapeutic about being able to say openly how they were feeling, their anger and frustration,” says Edwards, who attended the meeting. “It bothered me that the neighborhood was so adamant in not changing zoning, but within the African-American community zoning practices have always been perceived
as capricious.”

“I can’t understand why Albemarle, UVA and the city can’t come up with a solution,” Ninth Street resident John Gaines says of the 30 or so homeless expelled from Hope. As a longtime 10th and Pager, he helped run the late April meeting and says his objection to the shelter was over zoning, not any kind of prejudice against the homeless. “That’s not the case at all,” he says. “I work at a shelter that provides food for the homeless.”

TJACH

In 1998, the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless was formed to deal with the approximately 100 or so homeless believed to be living in Charlottesville. “These are not transient drunks,” then co-chair Reed Banks told C-VILLE. “For the most part, the homeless in Charlottesville are people who have lived here all their lives, and they’ve fallen out of the community because they can’t afford housing. They are working people. They are families with children.”

Those words are still largely true and TJACH is still struggling to deal with the area’s homeless who are at least 200 more strong. While it is advertised as “a broad-based coalition of individuals and organizations working to end homelessness in our region through strategic planning, coordination of services, and public education/advocacy on the causes and impacts of homelessness,” the group has only decided in the last month to officially incorporate as a nonprofit.

They did so after the rise and fall of Hope’s homeless shelter exposed a lack of leadership within the homeless service community (with Norris abstaining while on Council). If you’re interested in participating, TJACH has regular meetings at the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission the third Tuesday of each month that are open to the public.  

Wiber, Lynn

Wiber appeared on the cover of C-VILLE in March 2003 as the face of area homelessness. In the intervening years, she has worked for PACEM for a couple years (as an overnight monitor) and also stayed there off and on, including this winter, but moved over to Hope when the former closed in mid-March.

“People do not ask the homeless what they want, they tell them what they need,” she says. “They assume homeless people have no choices and that a lot of people would rather sleep outside than in a shelter. If you ask most of the homeless, they’d say, ‘I don’t want to be taken care of, but I would like a stable place to stay so I can get a job’—reasonable requests.”
    
With degrees in English literature and psychology, Wiber is an intelligent and pointed critic of all the efforts to help the homeless. “All these organizations, how many actually have homeless people they consult?” she asks. “If I’m not there, there’s no one else.”
 
As an episodically homeless person herself, Wiber also has incredible political capital, as she recently discovered when she approached City Council during their public comment period to ask for a favor. Two years ago, the water fountain in Lee Park was turned off. “They originally closed it because the homeless were using it and staying in the park,” she says. “I figured everyone had forgotten about it.”
 
With Hope shutting down and the weather getting warmer, Wiber asked the Council to turn the water back on. Just a few days ago, she went out to the park and stopped in front of the spigot. Turning its handle, Wiber marveled as water poured out in a small liquid rainbow. “Wow, I can finally say I got something done.”

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