Access to services questioned after false report of homeless death due to exposure

When reports of the death of a homeless man at the Coal Tower last Saturday night began circulating in the homeless community, the blame game started. As the story was told, the man was allegedly turned away from PACEM, a seasonal night shelter, for being drunk and later died of exposure, alone. Reports of his death made the rounds and before long a vigil was planned on Facebook to commemorate his life. As it turned out, the man who allegedly froze to death was alive and well.

Although there have been no deaths related to exposure in the last year, the fear of freezing is ever present for Charlottesville’s homeless.

“It’s something you worry about every night,” said Michael Sloan, who has been homeless for several years and has never spent the night at PACEM because of his dog, Jeda.


PACEM, a seasonal night shelter, was founded as a last resort option for men and women without a place to sleep at night. Local congregations, like this church on Rugby Road photographed in 2007, take turns offering shelter, a meal and in some cases showers and clean clothes. (Photo by Eric Kelley)

In a parallel story, however, Linda Doig, an Occupy Charlottesville symphatizer, passed away early this month of what Lieutenant Ronnie Roberts called natural causes. She was found unresponsive in a hotel room on Emmet Street. The Hook reports that she died of complications of alcoholism.

Mayor Dave Norris, former executive director of PACEM, said the homeless are a close-knit community that operates a swift, informal information network.

“You can tell something to one homeless person at one end of town and you can almost guarantee that by the end of the day, a homeless person at the other end of town heard it,” he said.

Although PACEM could do some outreach throughout the community, Colleen Keller, PACEM’s executive director, said the shelter has no requirements for intake.

“There is a big requirement,” said Keller ironically. “You have to come through the door at intake between 5:30pm and 6pm.”

Contrary to public perception, PACEM welcomes those who have been drinking. If a person is intoxicated to the point of not being able to walk, the staff at PACEM sends him to the Mohr Center, a sobering up shelter for men. For women, the very drunk will either end up in jail or the hospital, said Keller.

“We never put someone who is intoxicated back out in the streets because they will freeze,” she said.

There are a few people who are banned because of violence and non-service pets are also not accepted. Sloan said that if a YMCA would charge even $2 or $3 a night, a lot of the homeless would take advantage of the opportunity to have a warm bed, a good meal and a place for clean clothes.

The tight-knit community allows the homeless to notify each other of where services are and how to access them, but it doesn’t mean they’ll use them.

“It’s up to them whether or not they want to utilize the resources that they have available to them,” said Norris. “We can’t force them to go into a shelter, or go to a soup kitchen, but that does not necessarily mean that they are not aware of the services.”

Keller said that on Saturday night, the night of the alleged death due to exposure, 34 men took advantages of the shelter’s services, although the capacity is 45.

“On a given night, we can be full, but we have a partnership with the Salvation Army and we have an overflow location in place,” she said.

Anecdotally, misconception and misinformation about the intake requirements of PACEM, the only night shelter in Charlottesville, are rampant.

Keller said that PACEM was founded as a last resort option and she believes that people are not reluctant to come in, but have other sleeping arrangements provided to them.

“We don’t want everybody to become chronic and spend every winter at PACEM,” she said. “We walk a fine line, but the first place I heard that people were reluctant to come to PACEM was at Occupy [Charlottesville] and I was stunned.”

As members of Occupy Charlottesville settled in Lee Park, so did the homeless. Occupiers began seeing the homeless struggle as part of their local message and some of the homeless advocated for the need of a new, year-round night shelter. Keller somewhat disagrees.

“There are a lot of other places that they have to build shelters and I don’t think we are there,” she said. “So far, so good.”

According to the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless (TJACH) count for 2011, the number of unsheltered individuals decreased to 18 from 27 from the year before. Yet Keller said she has seen a recent increase in the number of homeless individuals in the community; some are “the permanent travelers,” while others come from different cities and counties. “It’s been very difficult,” she said. “It has increased and it’s troubling.”

PACEM does not ask people where they are from, but what sleeping options they have, and prioritizes the people who need shelter the most.

“We take everyone but not without thought. We are a safety net,” she said. “I think for years and years, which I think it’s great, there was always room. The world has changed, now we think more on how to help you.”

Norris believes that part of the increase in the number of homeless in Charlottesville is due to the economy, but he believes that people are not flocking to the city as he has heard around town.

“There is a myth out there, and it’s been out there for year and it’s hard to dispel, which is that Charlottesville is a magnet for the homeless,” he said. “It’s just simply not true.”
He said that the homeless population in Charlottesville is “more native” to the area than the rest of the population. Although he said there will always be evidence that people are attracted to Charlottesville, “you can’t allow anecdotal evidence to override the data.”

TJACH will hold its annual Homeless Memorial Service, an event that takes place in communities across the country, on Wednesday, December 21 from 3 to 4pm at The Haven. 

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