It has been nearly three years since Orange’s homeless shelter, Sheltering Arms, closed which leaves the question: where has the local homeless population gone?
Sheltering Arms closed its doors in November of 2011 due to lack of funding, putting its 24 residents back out on the streets. Federal grant money had begun to diminish and the government started funding a different approach to the homeless issue, an approach that is still being practiced today. Federal and state grants have taken money away from emergency shelters and are instead trying to apply funds to a Housing First method. This approach focuses on getting homeless individuals independent housing immediately rather than moving them through a transitional process. This method is supported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which points to a 30 percent drop in the number of homeless on the streets and in shelters from 2005-2007. According to a 2013 HUD report, Virginia’s total homeless population has dropped from 9,080 in 2010 to 7,625 in 2013.
Cathy Zielinski is the program manager for Rappahannock-Rapidan Regional Commission’s Human Services Planning and serves as the lead of the commission’s Regional Workforce Affordable Housing Committee.
“Our role is to coordinate the work of the homeless services programs and the shelters,” Zielinski said.
She said the majority of funding is going towards programs such as rapid re-housing and the Homeless Prevention Program (HPP), which concentrate on getting homeless out of shelters and into permanent housing of their own within 30 days. She says the regional commission has been trying to help local shelters maneuver this new federal formula while still being able to help homeless people.
Bob Lingo, director of Orange County’s Department of Social Services, was responsible for helping the Sheltering Arms residents relocate. “Something to bear in mind is the homeless are without a home, they’re not necessarily without resources in mind,” Lingo said. “They’ve got to figure out a way to survive.”
Lingo said the homeless are an extremely resourceful population because they manage with what they have. He said the local homeless population disappeared once Sheltering Arms closed which left him wondering where the homeless had gone. He said some of those residents have been traced to other programs around the area, like PACEM, a temporary shelter in Charlottesville, but his theory is they scattered because they have to go to where the resources are.
“Everyone was worried that we were going to have a homeless population when we weren’t going to have a shelter,” Lingo said. “In this event we didn’t have either.”
He said that homelessness in the area has not been a big enough problem to need further attention. What homeless he has encountered have been referred to the Piedmont United Way. The Piedmont United Way has taken in some individuals Lingo says he has come across.
“We have sent them people from time to time and that’s been our backup simply because without a shelter we have no homeless population that we can find,” he said.
Rebeckah Stewart-Armistead, who once was homeless, disagrees with Lingo’s assessment of the local homeless population. Stewart-Armistead is no longer homeless and is now an advocate speaking about homelessness. She is the coordinator for Fraught with the Arduous Challenge of Ending Stereotypes (F.A.C.E.S.) in Virginia, a group that belongs to the National Coalition for the Homeless. The “Faces of Homelessness” Speakers’ Bureau is made up of individuals who have experienced homelessness and now speak about their experiences and the truths of homelessness in efforts to make positive change.
Stewart-Armistead said she and the other 12 speakers on her team try and knock out the stereotypes of homelessness.
“We go to churches, civic centers, fire departments and any organization that is interested in hearing about it,” she said. She said many people are not aware of what homelessness is and what these individuals have to go through.
Stewart-Armistead fought her way out of homelessness and said she hoped to one day become an advocate for the issue. Her dream became true in the summer of 2012 when she attended the National Conference on Ending Homelessness in Washington, D.C.
“It was like a fairytale,” she said.
She has continued to advocate for homelessness and said she loves what she does and learning about others' experiences being homeless.
“You learn something new every day with the speakers’ bureau,” she said. “It’s always something different.”
Stewart-Armistead said people don’t think there are homeless in Orange, but she insists there are. She said within the past three months she has taken five families to shelters in either Staunton or Harrisonburg because there isn’t a local shelter. Homelessness in the region is still a pressing issue and something needs to be done with the former shelter because it’s needed, she said.
She said many of the regional shelters get filled quickly and have specific criteria individuals must meet in order to stay there.
Orange’s shelter was the only one in the region that took single men and that demographic lost a valuable resource when it closed, she said. Additionally, many people who are released from prison or veterans returning from war face homelessness and these are populations she's trying to reach. She participates with the Reentry Program at the Albemarle/Charlottesville Regional Jail and is planning on visiting a veteran’s hospital in Roanoke.
Stewart-Armistead said she is familiar with many people who have been homeless in Orange through Feed My Sheep, a program that provides emergency food to those who need it in the Gordonsville area.
Feed My Sheep was founded in 2007 and provides free lunch to those in need the last Saturday of every month.
Barbara Drinkwater is a member of the Gordonsville United Methodist Church which helped form Feed My Sheep with other community churches. Drinkwater says she has come across homeless individuals in recent months and doesn’t think their numbers have faded, but they’re simply coping the best they can. She said some of the homeless she has witnessed have unhappy home situations or are in abusive relationships but prefer not to leave the area.
“This is what I’ve discovered about homeless people,” she said. “They don’t want to be homeless, of course, but some don’t want to be dependent on anybody. I do know that they are out there; it’s just that they don’t want to be seen. But they do need help,” she said. “We help in any way that we can. We’re on this earth to help each other.”
Zielinski said she can’t say whether there are any homeless in Orange or not but she expects like any other place that there are but they aren’t immediately visible.
HUD uses a number of tools to share data on the homeless populations including point-in-time counts that provide a count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons across the country on a given day. Virginia usually conducts its count in January.
“We’ve seen a decline in the number of unsheltered homeless that we’ve been able to find,” Zielinski said stressing that the count is just a sample.
Point-in-time counts are a snapshot of homelessness because they only measure those who are homeless at a particular time and can only count people researchers find.
“We’ve found zero unsheltered people in Orange County and because they don’t have a shelter, there are zero sheltered people in Orange County as well,” Zielinski said about this year’s findings. “It doesn’t mean that I necessarily think there aren’t any homeless in Orange County, but it can be difficult to identify them.”
She said Orange County’s homeless have successfully participated in HPP rental assistance for those in imminent danger of becoming homeless. Additionally, five families from Orange have gone through the rapid re-housing program since last July which means they would’ve had to be homeless to qualify, Zielinski said. Those families have found housing within the Culpeper and Orange areas.
“There are homeless people in Orange that have been helped with this but I think the good part is that they are being helped,” she said. “Now as we look at social services and permanent housing, we’re moving into a new realm of interests for our housing groups and that’s why we need affordable housing.”
Zielinski says she believes Orange County is well situated for available affordable housing. Making affordable housing available through programs such as rapid re-housing has been proven to reduce family homelessness and continues to be invested in by federal funds, she said. The latest approach has been endorsed by the U.S. Interagency on Homelessness as the best practice for government and service agencies in the fight to end homelessness.