Hopeful, Optimistic….But Also Impatient

Posted on February 15, 2012

Three nights ago, the temperature plunged down into the teens and the wind chill factor was even colder than that. Most of us passed the night in the warmth of our heated homes. But according to Homeward’s most recent Point in Time Count, almost 1000 people in our very own community did not have a home in which to sleep that night and more than 100 were forced to sleep outside in public parks, on fire escapes, and in encampments by the river.

Statewide, more than 9,000 Virginians experienced homelessness that night according to estimates by Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development.  Can you imagine sleeping outdoors in that kind of cold? The truly sad part is that we know how to fix homelessness and a solution is within our reach. It’s called permanent supportive housing.

“Permanent supportive housing works,” states John Dearie, board member with the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, in his recent RTD op/ed piece. “Eighty-five to 100 percent of the tenants in…Virginia’s PSH programs have not returned to homelessness. The National Alliance to End Homelessness recently identified the emergence of PSH programs as the single most important factor in reducing chronic homelessness in America in recent years.”

Even more important, according to Dearie, is the fact that the permanent supportive housing model delivers dramatic savings to the community. “A 2010 analysis of Virginia Supportive Housing’s A Place to Start initiative showed that the program had dramatically reduced this hopeless and costly cycle [of chronic homelessness], saving the local community $320,000.”

This is really good news because it means that political consensus is possible. At a time when politicians can’t even agree on the color of the sky, Democrats and Republicans are joining forces to support legislation that paves the way for policy amendments, funding, and eventually, new PSH developments.

Dearie goes on to say, “Much more work remains to be done. According to VCEH, another 7,000 PSH units are needed to end homelessness in Virginia. That’s a daunting number, but it can be achieved. And Virginia has already made impressive progress.”

At Virginia Supportive Housing, we are hopeful and optimistic…but we are also impatient.

Hopeful because we know that permanent supportive housing is what solves homelessness and we work toward that solution each and every day.

Optimistic because advocacy for this evidence-based model is slowly but surely growing, both across the state and across the nation.

Impatient because, for the people who are sleeping outside in frigid weather, that solution can’t happen soon enough.

To read John Dearie’s complete op/ed piece, click here.

To read what the National Alliance to End Homelessness has to say about permanent supportive housing, click here.

To find out more about the work of Virginia Supportive Housing, click here.
To support VSH, click here.

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?

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