Is It Too Much To Ask?

Posted on February 8, 2011

This week’s blog was written by VSH’s volunteer program coordinator, Alison Jones-Nassar.

The morning of Thursday, January 27 was very cold. Snow, slush, and ice crusted the ground and you really had to keep moving to stay warm. By the time I arrived at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to check in as a volunteer, a line had started to form outside. People with bags and backpacks shuffled in place and blew into their hands, waiting for the doors to open.

Inside the church, fellow volunteers sat in the warmth and listened to instructions while waiting for the coffee to brew. As participants in the January 2011 Point in Time Count, our task was to administer surveys to the homeless individuals lining up outside.  Their answers would give Homeward, Richmond’s central research & data collection agency, demographic information on how many people are homeless and who they are. More importantly, it would provide insight into why they are homeless. The survey consisted of 70 questions that asked people to classify themselves in terms of a variety of risk factors. Have you ever had a problem with alcohol? Have you ever received treatment for mental illness? Did you ever serve in the military? Were you homeless as a child? Knowing the answers to these questions helps our community to better understand the complicated issues confronting people who are experiencing housing crises and also helps to focus resources.

Within the space of a few hours, I conducted six surveys. I glimpsed six different versions of hell that morning, but they all pointed to one gigantic failure of our society to take care of its most vulnerable citizens. And the biggest question – why? – went unanswered.

Ron, a military veteran with diabetes, had spent the previous night under the Manchester Bridge. As hard as I try, I can’t imagine myself doing that. Alicia had spent the night in a shelter.  In her mid-forties, she suffered from severe depression. When she replied to my questions, she returned my gaze and patted my hand, as if to reassure me but I was not reassured. She could be my sister, my daughter, my best friend. She could even be me.

Albert was also in his forties, but he looked much older. Staring straight ahead, he curtly described his extensive criminal history and substance abuse problem. He was doing his best not to care that a complete stranger was chronicling his plunge to rock-bottom.  Jake was my age, fifty-one, and had a Master’s degree in public administration. In a soft voice, he spoke to me about his teenagers, his years in Massachusetts, and his struggles with mental illness. He had been living in an encampment for just over a year and did not express much confidence in the possibility that his situation might improve.

Why is it acceptable in this country for people to wander the cold streets with no place to go? Why do they have to sleep under bridges and in parks? Why, as sick as some of them are, can’t they get the treatment they need and the compassion any of us in similar circumstances would want and deserve?

In response to the final question, “What would it take for you to be permanently housed?” the answer was always the same. A job. Income. Money. A way to support myself. A place I can afford. “I don’t want anyone’s charity,” Ron told me. “I don’t need anyone’s help. I just want to be able to take care of myself.” That’s not too much to ask….is it?

Did you know?

Posted on January 12, 2010

1) The number of children experiencing homelessness has remained relatively stable over the last three years.

2) 31% of people experiencing homelessness report mental health problems.

3) Approximately 18% of people experiencing homelessness are veterans.

4) It costs more to provide emergency shelter (up to 90 days) and transitional housing (up to 2 years) than it does to provide permanent supportive housing.

5) Almost 20% of persons experiencing homelessness in Greater Richmond report Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover as their previous place of residence.

…stay tuned for additional “Did you know?” blogs every month

 Data provided by Homeward

And the award goes to…

Posted on September 21, 2009

I’m excited to announce that VSH Board Member and former tenant, Orville Banks is the winner of Homeward’s 2009 Steve Neathery Award for “successfully overcoming homelessness and helping others to make the same transition”.

The award will be presented at the Homeward’s 2009 Trends and Innovations Awards reception as part of this year’s Best Practices Conference on September 24th.

Having struggled with alcoholism for years, Orville became homeless in 2002. After spending 2 months at a shelter, he moved into VSH’s South Richmond Apartments in November of that year. With the help of the on-site support services staff, he began to address his alcohol dependence.

Having successfully dealt with his alcoholism and obtained employment, Orvillee moved out of South Richmond in 2004 to become the live-in Night Manager at New Clay House. New Clay is another VSH supportive apartment building for single adults who have been homeless.

Orvillee is passionate about giving back to his community. He serves on the VSH Board of Directors and has spoken at events, including Affordable Housing Awareness Week, to share his story with the public. He actively seeks opportunities to help others overcome addiction and homelessness, and routinely shares his story to inspire the tenants at New Clay to continue their efforts toward recovery.

Also, with the assistance of VSH’s Financial Foundations asset development program, Orvillee is working to achieve his financial management goals and is approaching the stage of pre-qualifying for a home loan.

Congratulations Orvillee! The award is well disserved.

Feeling guilty…don't

Posted on June 24, 2009

“You did what?” I remember my husband asking me incredulously when I told him I had given $20 to a woman asking for money outside the grocery store. “But, she really seemed genuine. I mean it was a very believable story,” I retorted defensively, all the while secretly kicking myself for being a sucker and realizing I had just been taken.

I have always considered myself a level-headed person with common sense and not a bleeding heart. So his reaction deeply bothered me. Why had I given the woman $20? Like thousands of other good-hearted Americans would — I believed her story, felt sorry for her and wanted to help.

I no longer give money to people who ask me on the street; and I don’t feel bad about it. Whether it’s triggered by substance abuse, mental illness, con artistry or honest misfortune, panhandling is not a healthy lifestyle. It doesn’t help the panhandler, sympathetic citizen or community. There also can be serious and deadly consequences of panhandling. A few years ago, one of the residents of the supportive housing apartments we operate was killed while panhandling. A motorist struck him on the median of a busy street. His needless, wasteful death could have been avoided.

So, why are people in our community still panhandling? The answer is not simple. Over the last fifteen years, our public income safety net for low-income single adults has been eroded. Many panhandlers have disabilities that prevent them from working, but they also have trouble navigating the bureaucratic maze to secure disability benefits. Others have multiple barriers to employment (limited education, lack of transportation) and have difficulty securing jobs that continue to migrate into the counties. Some have active and untreated problems with addiction. Lastly, the presence of con artists who see an easy mark in the sympathetic public cannot be discounted.

What can be done about it? Many communities have passed ordinances banning panhandlers, resulting in some arrests and upsetting civil libertarians. (Isn’t it our right as Americans to stand on a corner asking for a handout?) But that hasn’t stopped the problem.

Homeward, our regional coordinating body, whose mission is to reduce homelessness by initiating creative solutions and coordinating regional resources and services, recently got a grant for a marketing campaign to try and stop panhandling. They have launched a multi-level media campaign, trying to get citizens to stop giving to panhandlers and to invest in local non-profits like VSH who are providing solutions for people with very low incomes.

For panhandlers who are homeless, some community resources exist. Richmond has 1,000 shelter and transitional housing beds for those who are homeless; we serve meals daily; and we have a program for people with substance abuse problems, The Healing Place, that is peer driven and takes into account the fact that people relapse numerous times before they become serious about recovering. VSH also has an array of permanent supportive housing programs for individuals who’ve experienced homelessness.

Panhandling actually undermines the work that we do. So, if you do feel the need to help panhandlers, tell them where they can eat or sleep for free, get them to one of the many non-profit agencies that exist to help folks like them, or donate to a non-profit to invest in providing real solutions to these difficult community problems. We are here, not to enable people, but to empower them.

What I used to believe

Posted on May 20, 2009

While I was at recent meeting talking about how to make our homeless system better and/or how to solve the problems of homelessness, a shelter provider made the comment that some people “need” transitional housing—that is, many are not ready for permanent housing. I said that I disagreed, but what I didn’t say is that I used to believe the same thing.

As one of the founders of the first emergency shelter in Richmond—the shelter at Foushee and Main Street, which opened its doors in 1981– I’m not proud of the fact that, as businesses go, we’ve grown our shelter system to where we have around 1,000 beds of emergency and transitional housing. On the surface, that sounds like a good thing. We’re keeping a lot of people out of the cold and giving them a safe place to sleep every night. But at what costs and is this what people need?

According to Homeward (the regions coordinating body on homeless services), the lowest shelter cost are the ones for single adults. It costs no more to permanently houses a single adult in one of the Virginia Supportive Housing’s (VSH) supportive studio apartments. It does cost more to permanently house a single adult with a serious mental illness in the VSH A Place to Start program because of the intensive services provided by a team of professionals. But, if you add up what these individuals were costing the community in terms of hospital costs, ambulance services, jail time, food pantries, health clinics; it is saving the community more by having a person permanently housed.

So, if cost is not an issue, do people need to stay in shelters or transitional housing because they’re not “ready” for housing—they need the time to “get it together”? Here’s a novel approach—why can’t people “get it together” so to speak while they’re in permanent housing? Of course they can! As a matter of fact, the permanent housing stabilizes an individual or a family and starts them on the road to improving their lives.

We have proven this with the VSH supportive studio apartments and especially with A Place to Start. We have taken people directly off the streets, some of whom had been living there for years, and placed them in permanent housing, and guess what? It works! If you ask someone living on the streets what they want most, 99% of them will say “a place to live”.

Do I think that we need to eliminate shelter? No, but, we need to re-think what we’re doing and focus our money and our efforts on viable solutions that work. Instead of 1,000 emergency shelter and transitional housing beds and only 400 permanent supportive housing beds, it should be just the opposite.

If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you keep getting the same results. Richmond, are you ready for a paradigm shift?

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