As the number of coronavirus cases continue to rise in our area, life has become increasingly dangerous for those who do not have a place to call home. To protect these vulnerable community members, local shelters have pivoted from their usual operations and redoubled their efforts over the past several months—but not without challenges.
For months, these organizations have been scrambling to find housing for people who need it.
In March, People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry, or PACEM, which works with local community groups to provide shelter for the homeless, began housing women at The Haven and men at Key Recreation Center.
In late April, the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless was able to secure funding for 30 rooms at a local hotel. All six of the women housed at The Haven, and about a dozen men from Key Rec, were transferred there.
The rest of the men, however, had to remain in a group setting, because the hotel rooms were reserved only for high-risk individuals, according to Jayson Whitehead, executive director of PACEM.
PACEM then managed to set up another women’s shelter at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church in May. And once TJACH reserved 20 more rooms at the hotel the following month, these women were also transferred there, along with the men who were staying at Key Rec, regardless of their risk status.
But PACEM is no longer able to take in guests who aren’t high-risk, due to the limited number of hotel rooms available.
“Everyone who was in the congregate setting, whether they were women or men, did have a place in the hotel,” says Stephen Hitchcock, The Haven’s executive director. “That’s not the case now. If someone is experiencing homelessness, but is not [high risk], given their age or medical vulnerability, they do not have an emergency option [with us].”
Those who are not high risk can go to The Salvation Army shelter, he says. It’s often at capacity, though, and is currently unable to accept new guests, thanks to recent state restrictions.
In the spring, as a response to the economic fallout caused by the pandemic, Governor Ralph Northam and the Supreme Court of Virginia ordered a moratorium on evictions. On June 29, that moratorium was lifted, causing concern among advocates for the unhoused. Northam and the state supreme court reinstated the eviction ban on August 7, but in July, over 15,000 eviction hearings were heard in court, and more than 3,000 families were evicted across Virginia, according to the Legal Aid Justice Center.
From July 1 to August 7, landlords brought 73 unique eviction cases against Albemarle County renters and 57 cases against Charlottesville renters. Of those 130 cases, 28 have already been decided against the tenants, and dozens more remain on the docket in coming weeks.
However, Anthony Haro, executive director of TJACH, says it is “too early to say” if there’s been an increase in homelessness due to lifting the moratorium.
“I don’t think we’ve really seen it yet…we are anticipating it,” says Haro. “[But] there are programs that are stepping up to keep people in housing.”
The state is currently running a rent and mortgage relief program, which has about “$2 million available locally to help families facing eviction,” says Haro. “It’s been very, very busy. There’s lots of people reaching out right now…It’s not going to meet all of the need, but we’re hoping that it’s going to prevent a lot of those evictions that we are anticipating.”
The Community Resource Helpline, Charlottesville Housing RELIEF Fund, Alliance for Interfaith Ministries, and Charlottesville Housing Assistance Program are also providing relief to residents in Charlottesville, and surrounding counties.
For the guests it is able to house at the hotel, PACEM provides a variety of services, including daily meals, group therapy, and weekly checkups (performed by UVA medical students). Staff also sets up and brings guests to doctor’s appointments, which are covered by TJACH.
Due to the extensive health and safety measures both staff and guests have taken, there have been no COVID-19 cases among those at the hotel, according to PACEM’s Women’s Case Manager Heather Kellams.
“The women have said that, being at the hotel, they feel much safer. They feel that their mental and physical health needs are being met in this setting,” she says. “They have a chance to be more grounded, so that they can really look at their goals…and work on becoming more stabilized.”
Kellams says that guests are “really bored,” though, and she’s asking for donations of arts and crafts supplies, games, books, and other “enriching activities” to keep them occupied.
“Somebody could come in and cut their hair while wearing masks,” she adds. “Those are the kind of things that would really be helpful.”
The Haven and PACEM ultimately hope to transition guests to permanent housing, using the thousands of dollars in donations they’ve received. But the pandemic has made this more challenging than ever.
“We have a lot of dollars to house people. There’s just not affordable housing available,” says Hitchcock. “A lot of landlords are very skittish right now…They’re waiting to see what UVA does, and what it means for students to come back. They’ve got students in leases generally from August to August, and that directly affects us—that’s the affordable housing.”
“It’s been ironic to be heavily resourced financially but with a dearth of affordable housing,” he adds. “We’ve always had this affordable housing issue, but it’s acutely the case right now.”
When the pandemic does finally come to an end, Hitchcock is hopeful there will be an even greater push for affordable housing in Charlottesville.
“It feels like the general public is beginning to understand that homelessness is at its root a housing crisis,” he says. “And what is being amplified is that housing is health care. Everyone being safe—including folks who are extremely poor or housing insecure—is public safety.”