Last August, Chinikqua Joseph’s Buckingham County home burned down. Thankfully, no one was injured or killed by the fire, but she, along with her mother and godmother, lost everything. They were homeless.
While looking for housing, Joseph stayed with friends, and later with a boyfriend. When that relationship became abusive, she had to find a new place to stay. Joseph has epilepsy, so it’s difficult for her to hold down a job, and she had trouble saving money for housing.
Just when she thought she would have no choice but to live on the street, Joseph learned about PACEM (People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry), which works with local congregations and community groups to provide overnight shelter, as well as food and resources, for the homeless during the colder months.
Joseph is part of a startling rise in the number of local women seeking shelter at PACEM, says executive director Jayson Whitehead. In 2015, an average of 8 women per night sought shelter through PACEM, while in 2018 and 2019 the nightly average was 15. Last season, PACEM sheltered 73 women total. So far this year, the average has been 16 women per night.
In response to the growing need, advocates like Heather Kellams, PACEM’s women’s case manager, are hoping to extend the organization’s season, which currently ends in April, as well as build a permanent, year-round women’s shelter in Charlottesville.
“Women are really the most vulnerable population,” Kellams says. She attributes the rise in those seeking shelter to a variety of causes, from domestic violence to mental illness to opioid addiction. Behind those, “it’s usually deep-rooted trauma,” she says. “When you start to peel back the skin of the onion of every woman, you find that these are women who are really just in fear and hurt, that are just striving for somewhere to…rebuild and enrich their lives.”
“The current [PACEM] model is transient and doesn’t really lend itself for a woman to be able to nest and grow,” Kellams says. And other local women’s shelters do not fully meet the need either. The Salvation Army’s shelter requires guests to pass a drug screen and breathalyzer, and the Shelter for Help in Emergency offers temporary housing only to victims of domestic violence.
Kellams envisions a small shelter that would provide counseling and health care, and connect guests to work opportunities and community resources. Like PACEM’s current program, it would be low-barrier, meaning it would not require ID or screen for alcohol or drug use.
“I see deep potential in how [guests] could really develop and be positive, productive citizens, and heal from deep trauma, and actually return to their previous lives…but they won’t be able to do that unless they have a healing base that they can call their home,” Kellams says, “It’s the responsibility of our community to keep these women safe and not turn them out to the streets.”
Tamie Edwards has experienced the dangers of living on the street. After her husband was murdered last January in Charlottesville, Edwards could no longer afford to remain in their home. With no place to stay, she soon discovered PACEM, which gave her a place to sleep.
She left, briefly, when she got involved in another relationship. But that relationship turned abusive, and living on the Downtown Mall left her vulnerable to harassment and assault.
After nearly a month, Edwards returned to PACEM for help.
“I haven’t been able to find housing because of my income…I [receive] $700 a month” from SSI, Edwards says. “There are a lot of ladies in my situation…so having a women’s shelter would be really awesome.”
Kellams hopes to find a benefactor or partner who can purchase or donate an existing building to use for the shelter, pointing to other local organizations, such as On Our Own, that have followed that model. But she says PACEM also plans to start a fundraising campaign soon, in case it’s necessary to rent or buy a building.
In the meantime, PACEM has been working to expand its services and programs for women. Every Monday, it hosts Sister Circle, which helps participants “learn about their strengths,” and “teaches them about wellness, and other types of life skills,” Kellams says. The women also do community service projects, as well as fun activities.
“Sister Circle is a positive group to be a part of. It’s great to be able to gather and release onto other women in need of support,” Joseph says. “The circle allows us to share our vision of what it means to be a competent woman, and that competence is within all of us.”
PACEM also seeks to raise awareness about its need for more host sites, as well as a permanent women’s shelter.
“We hope by making the public aware of what we’re doing…that folks will step up and support what we’re doing,” says Whitehead. “It is something we really need the community at large to embrace…we can’t do this by ourselves.”
Correction February 26: Eight women per night and 15 women per night sought shelter through PACEM in 2015 and 2018/2019, respectively, not eight and 15 women total. This year, an average of 16 women have sought shelter through PACEM per night, not 16 women total.