Charlottesville’s new homeless

The resulting contradiction couldn’t be sharper: While developers and their supporters on Council hammer a “Wealthy Buyers Only” sign on the top of the City gates, a new breed of disenfranchised City dwellers is sprouting below. Lynn Wiber is among them. Educated and employed, she has no home of her own and few prospects of getting one. Hers is the new face of homelessness.

As night falls and the wind picks up in Charlottesville, a local radio station broadcasts the weather report: Lows tonight will be in the single digits, with highs tomorrow in the teens.

Lynn Wiber always pays close attention to the forecast, especially in winter, and meteorologists predict tonight, January 17, will be one of the coldest nights on record. To keep warm, Wiber wears a substantial portion of her entire wardrobe, which she keeps in four shopping bags stacked atop her employee locker at Barnes & Noble in the Barracks Road shopping center.

“I’ve got a place to stay tonight,” Wiber assures her co-workers, who have heard the forecast and worry for her safety.

But she couldn’t divulge many details about her shelter for the night. She had recently arranged to pay an acquaintance $90 per week to sleep in the woman’s apartment (her part-time job nets Wiber about $127 a week). Since the subleasor’s primary income is from disability payments, she and Wiber have to keep the arrangement hush-hush. Otherwise, the woman’s government assistance check could be cut.

“She needs the money and I actually have a bed,” Wiber says. “It’s great for both of us… as long as nobody rats us out.”

To avoid arousing suspicion, Wiber doesn’t want to go to the apartment near Downtown until late. She will kill time with one of the few entertainment options available to Charlottesville’s poor and homeless—walking the streets.

Outside Barnes & Noble, people grimace in the bitter night air, scurrying from their cars toward the warm, glowing shops. Wiber starts walking south toward UVA. Tonight she hopes to meet some friends, a couple expecting their first child. Since they’re also homeless, they likely will spend the evening as Wiber does, walking around trying not to freeze.

As Wiber passes Harris Teeter, she mentions that before she found regular shelter she would often spend the night sitting in the 24-hour grocery’s café, reading one of the more than 400 books she has borrowed from Barnes & Noble since she began her employment there in August 2000. Checking out books is an employee perquisite Wiber says has proved invaluable in the fight against boredom that comes with homelessness.

“I can just get into a book and ship my mind off to somewhere else,” she says. She’s currently reading The Mouse that Roared , a 1955 allegory about the United States going to war that Wiber, 46, first read when she was a child in Richmond.

A black Ford Explorer pulls alongside her. The tinted window drops halfway, and a pink-cheeked face yells out something unintelligible. The truck roars up Arlington Boulevard.

“The best and the brightest,” Wiber says. She laughs with a tinge of bitterness. “They’ve been given everything, and they think they’re entitled to it.”

Wiber professes no resentment towards the well off per se, but she is offended, she says, by those who feel entitled to wealth and view poor people as failures. As traffic rushes by along Emmet Street, she reflects on money’s place in society. In a City with so much wealth, why must some people scrape and struggle just to keep a roof over their heads?

Wiber is no materialist, claiming that by choice she limits her possessions to what can fit in a car. A trained nurse, she never expected to get rich. Nor did she figure she’d ever be homeless; that is, until she moved to Charlottesville.

“I’ve made it on minimum wage before, I thought I could do it here,” she says. “Maybe I was blind or stupid, but I didn’t realize how expensive it is to live here.”

As part of its long-range planning, City Council is now forming a task force to examine Charlottesville’s housing market. Included in the task force’s mandate are instructions to consider protecting “diversity” and “vulnerable populations.” Wiber doesn’t believe these phrases apply to her.

“Diversity isn’t just ethnic, it’s economic,” she says. “Council’s motto is ‘A World Class City,’ but they really just want Charlottesville to be for the nice people, the rich people.”

 

Conclusive data on the composition and trends among Charlottesville’s homeless population do not exist, but anecdotal evidence suggests Wiber’s situation is not uncommon, says Reed Banks. As co-chair of the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless, Banks says he wants to refute common myths about local homelessness.

“These are not transient drunks,” says Banks. “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.”

In January, workers from the Coalition and volunteers from the Salvation Army combed the City and surveyed more than 100 homeless people. According to Evan Scully, who is directing the information-gathering project, the survey reveals that:

•62 percent had been homeless for less than six months;

•36 percent said they were currently employed; and

•39 percent were homeless with their families.

“It appears that the number of homeless families in the area is on the way up,” Scully says. “It fits what you find nationally, but it’s a surprise to many people.

“By far,” he says, “the biggest problem in this area is affordable housing.”

Scully says the market for Section 8 rental assistance is one measure of the low-income housing crisis. Section 8 is Federal money that helps low-income people pay for housing. In Charlottesville and Albemarle County, there are approximately 613 and 458 housing units, respectively, where poor people can use Section 8 vouchers.

Yet demand far outstrips supply. In Charlottesville, for instance, there are more than 1,000 people on the waiting list. In the County, about 475 people are waiting. A person applying today for Section 8 rental assistance can expect to wait between one and two years or more before getting help, Scully says.

“In a crisis situation, that’s too late,” says Scully. “By the time help reaches someone, they’ve had to go on to some other desperation move.”

The Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funds Section 8 housing and emergency homeless shelters. But HUD won’t fork over money unless local governments endorse the projects. Banks says the City has consistently refused to endorse developments that would benefit the poor, such as a homeless shelter Banks recently pitched. By contrast, Albemarle County agreed to endorse the shelter, says Banks.

“We’ve consistently run into problems trying to get the City to endorse these kinds of projects,” he says. “The jurisdictions don’t work together as well as they could in providing housing for the indigent.”

City Strategic Planner Satyendra Huja says it’s up to developers, not the City, to build low-income housing. But the City can use its clout to fight proposed low-income housing, as it did several years ago when a developer wanted to build 200 units on Elliot Avenue. “We thought that was unreasonable,” says Huja. “Now, that land has 36 units available for home ownership.”

Huja acknowledges that the City’s housing strategy is focused on helping people buy homes, not easing rent burdens.

“Charlottesville has 22 percent of the region’s population, and 50 percent of the region’s subsidized housing,” says Huja. “Affordable rental housing is a problem, but we have more than our fair share. The surrounding counties should take their share of the burden.”

The problem is simple economics. For developers, affordable housing in Charlottesville isn’t as lucrative as higher-end units. In the City’s view, rent assistance is an ongoing financial commitment, while helping a new homeowner is a one-time expense.

Also, says Huja, lots of low-income renters in the City put a greater strain on the City’s budget in areas like police protection and social services.

High rents may discourage poor people from moving to Charlottesville, but for the working poor who already live here, the housing market is what drives many to seek social services for the first time, those providers say.

“The assumption is that people in poverty are not working, and that’s simply not true,” says Jon Nafziger, Vice President for Community Initiatives at the local United Way. “Many are working full time or working two jobs, and they’re just not making enough money to completely support themselves.”

 

For Wiber, Charlottesville was supposed to be the perfect place to begin life again. She arrived here in June 2000 after a lifetime of starting over. At 17, she had left her home in Richmond to join a kibbutz in Israel, where she worked as a physician’s assistant. There she married a man named Ari who died six months later when he stepped on an anti-personnel mine. She traveled across Europe working as a nanny. Eventually, she borrowed thousands of dollars to attend Virginia Commonwealth University in her home city. While working in the emergency room at the Medical College of Virginia, she completed degrees in English literature and psychology in 1993. She worked in an emergency room in Richmond. She was a nanny in Colorado and Pennsylvania.

When Wiber’s mother died in 1997, she returned to Richmond again and moved in with her brother, David. She planned to stay in Richmond, but in April 2000 David died while rock climbing in West Virginia. She claims his last gifts to her were a $900 phone bill he incurred ordering expensive digital options for his computer and a depleted bank account. Wiber says David had used his Internet savvy to steal most of the $10,000 Wiber had socked away in a Pennsylvania bank.

“He was your classic sociopath,” she says. “He stole from our parents, from his jobs. I didn’t think he’d be able to get into my bank account, but I guess it’s not that hard if you know how to use computers.”

Wiber declared bankruptcy and left Richmond. “I always thought my family was cursed,” she says.

After surviving Beirut, the Golan Heights and Denver, Wiber saw Charlottesville as a small-town utopia, judging by its “10 Best” ranking among U.S. cities from magazines that calculate that kind of thing for golfers, tennis players and retirees.

“This community has everything I want,” she says. “There’s things to do, there’s good conversations, there’s music.” Alas, Charlottesville isn’t a very good place to be poor.

Wiber came to town with $600 and the Acura Legend she inherited from her mother. She got a full-time job at Barnes & Noble, but says she soon realized her $7.50 per hour salary, most of which went to pay her $400 a month rent, wasn’t enough to make ends meet. In February she moved into the Salvation Army’s transitional housing.

About that time she started frequenting the Army’s cafeteria, which provides free meals every day, as well as soup kitchens run by various local churches. “One good thing about Charlottesville is that, no matter what, you can always get fed,” says Wiber.

She lived at the Salvation Army for about one year before she started suffering mysterious seizures.

“The doctors told me I might be losing my mind. I wasn’t too happy to hear that,” she says.

She spent a week at Martha Jefferson Hospital undergoing tests. Doctors told her she had a lesion in her brain. Barnes & Noble cut her hours and her pay because, she says, the company felt her medical problems made it too difficult for her to reliably work full-time. With the demotion, she could no longer afford to pay the Salvation Army’s $255 monthly rent. In late March 2002, on her first night “outside,” she was robbed.

 

During this, her first winter as a homeless person, Wiber says she’s learned a few things:

•Layers are the key to warmth;

•Many people are just a bad decision and an unlucky break away from losing their homes;

•People sincerely want to help others, but…;

•Money almost always trumps morality.

After her first night on the street a year ago, Wiber called Barnes & Noble district manager Bob Crabtree to complain about the demotion that put even the Salvation Army’s transitional housing out of reach. “I didn’t know what else to do. I thought I’d probably get fired,” she says.

Instead, the company put Wiber up for a month at the Red Carpet Inn on Route 29. After that, she found a room at a reduced rent from a woman who worked as a touring musician during the summer and needed a house sitter in her absence. After a few weeks, however, the woman’s daughter decided to move into the house, and Wiber had to leave.

She moved into the Drop-In Center on Fourth Street. Also known as On Our Own, the house provides transitional shelter and other services for people with mental illness. Wiber traded shifts as a night monitor in exchange for rent. That arrangement came to an end in October when Wiber suffered a bad burn, caused, she says, by accidentally igniting her blouse with a candle.

Wiber spent several days at UVA Medical Center. Before her discharge, On Our Own Director Will Gallik told Wiber she could no longer live there. Wiber and Gallik agree that the outcome was her return to homelessness. Citing confidentiality, Gallik would make no further comment on Wiber’s situation.

She could not return to the Salvation Army, she says, because she was in arrears there. She was discharged from the hospital in the leopard-print pajamas she had worn when she was admitted. So she just walked to Barnes & Noble in that outfit to retrieve her paycheck.

“I was astounded she was out on the street,” says Mike Thompson, retired director of human resources for Albemarle County and now one of Wiber’s co-workers at the bookstore. He let Wiber sleep on his couch that night and for a few days afterward. He says he’s troubled by the City’s lack of emergency shelter, especially for single women. He’s also troubled by the paradox of Charlottesville.

“There’s a lot of wealth in this community,” says Thompson. “But the cost of living is high and the wages are low. That hurts a lot of people, and creates some social service problems that I don’t think many people are taking seriously.”

Wiber’s co-workers sincerely care about her hardship, she says, but they aren’t sure how to help. One day, for example, she joked about having holes in her socks. During the next few days, she received “an avalanche” of socks from her co-workers.

She says she never asks to stay in people’s homes and is reluctant to accept their offers for temporary shelter. “I don’t like asking for help,” she says. “And it’s awkward taking someone into your house who you don’t really know.”

For the desperately poor and homeless in Charlottesville who have no family to turn to, there are myriad social service agencies offering help with everything from rent to transportation to child care. The City’s Department of Social Services gave Wiber a list of dozens of local agencies. Wiber says she’s tried them all.

But in a City that allocates only 6 percent of its annual $94 million budget to social services, there almost always is someone who needs the help more than Wiber does. She’s neither mentally ill nor addicted to substances. She has no children and is not a victim of domestic violence. So aside from Federally funded food stamps, she’s not eligible for many local social services.

“Everywhere I go, people told me that I was one of those that fell through the cracks,” she says.

Patching the cracks evidently is not on the City’s agenda. The cracks are only getting bigger. Local agencies say, for instance, that their list of new applicants is growing.

“We’re seeing an increase in Food Stamps, and in general case-load relief. All the financial programs are showing growth, whereas all of them had been declining during the ’90s,” says Buzz Cox, director of the City’s social services department.

Cox says many agencies are hamstrung by State and Federal regulations that dictate who they can serve. People like Wiber, the working poor who are needy—but not the neediest—are out of luck.

“The bad news is that people who need these programs don’t qualify, and the amount of assistance the agencies provide may not be enough to really help,” says Cox. “The so-called safety net isn’t what you may hope it would be. For the people in [Wiber’s] situation, it’s going to be difficult for them to get help.

“In the big picture,” he adds, “the real issue is the lack of jobs that pay enough to afford the housing. If you’re not making enough money, emergency services won’t really help you.”

 

People in Charlottesville worried about how rising rents will affect the working poor won’t find much comfort in City Hall. When City Council talks about protecting “vulnerable populations,” they’re talking about middle-class homebuyers, not low-income renters. Indeed, rental assistance was not even in the FY 2004 budget that City Manager Gary O’Connell presented to City Council on Monday, March 3.

The City’s housing strategy is to replace renters with owners. Charlottesville contracts with the nonprofit Piedmont Housing Alliance to buy and refurbish run-down rental homes in low-income neighborhoods like Starr Hill and 10th and Page. In the past five years, the City and PHA have sold about 20 homes, according to PHA director Stu Armstrong. The homes sell for about $100,000, and Armstrong says more than 100 people a year sign up for PHA’s help in buying a house. Generally, prospective buyers must earn less than 60 percent of the area’s median income, which is $63,600 for a family of four. The County operates a comparable service, called the Albemarle Housing Improvement Program.

While City Council preaches the mantra of “diversity” and “mixed-incomes” in its housing strategy, housing activists say those are merely code words for gentrification. The City seems willing to subsidize the flow of middle-income residents into low-income neighborhoods, but not the flow of low-income residents into middle- and upper-income neighborhoods.

“The plan doesn’t seem to include lifting our own working class up into the middle class. The idea seems to be bringing white, upper-middle class folks in from outside,” says Ben Thacker-Gwaltney, a housing activist at the Virginia Organizing Project. “The renting population has pretty much been left high and dry.

“The City is using public dollars to accelerate the gentrification process, which is chugging along fine on the strength of market forces,” he says.

From the City’s perspective, renters are a risk. They tend to utilize social services, for example, but contribute less to the tax rolls than homeowners do. Furthermore, police say that replacing renters with homeowners has a positive effect on crime. Owners have a vested interest in neighborhood stability and are more likely to report suspicious activity to the police. (The one area where the City makes exception for these perceived liabilities is a University renter. Indeed, the City hopes to capitalize on the massive influx of UVA undergraduates expected in the next decade. The City’s rezoning proposal currently under consideration would create University Precincts in the midst of owner-occupied single-family neighborhoods where density could reach as much as 150 renters per acre.)

Among Charlottesville’s non-University dwellers, however, the people who most feel the pinch are those who do the City’s dirty work for low wages and few benefits—operating cash registers, cleaning toilets, serving dinners. They are the working poor, says Joe Szakos, director of the Virginia Organizing Project.

“Most of the people working minimum wage jobs in Charlottesville are not teenagers looking for spending money,” says Szakos, a “Living Wage” activist who follows local labor trends. “They are people working two or three of these jobs trying to make a living.”

In the long run, Wiber predicts, pricing out poor people may backfire on the City’s economy. “I think Charlottesville still has vestiges of a plantation mentality. The attitude is, you should work for subsistence wages and you should be happy about it,” she says.

“But if you get rid of all the poor people, who’s going to do all the grunt work?”

Wiber compares poverty to a steep slope. The further you fall, she says, the harder it becomes to climb back. Because she once declared bankruptcy, for example, landlords ask her to pay as much as three months’ rent up front. “I can understand it. I’m sure they’ve been scammed,” she says. “But if you’re homeless and you’re just trying to get through this week, it’s hard to get that money together. When you’re poor, you have to worry about what you’re going to do right now.”

Being poor means having no choices, she says. It means playing by other people’s rules in a game that is often unfair and humiliating. Living with little control over your own life has, in Wiber, fostered an unexpected combination of feelings.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m paying off bad karma from a former life,” she says. “But you have to have a sense of humor about it.

“When I first came to town there was a homeless camp behind the Monticello Visitor’s Center. I thought that was hilarious.”

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