The Feeling Of Safety, The Meaning Of Hope

Posted on January 26, 2010

A recent poll among homeowners  indicated that more than 30% experienced real fears of being homeless within the last year. All the while, rates of foreclosure and homelessness continue to rise.

Homelessness is a reality for many families, but at Virginia Supportive Housing, we can transform that reality into a dream of stability, safety, and hope.  What does that really mean to the people we serve? There are faces behind the statistics—living, breathing individuals whose lives are changed by having a safe place to call home. It is in their stories that you learn why we do what we do. This is one of our Stories of Hope.

“When our time at the shelter was up, I was terrified. Now that I was clean and had custody of my kids, I was responsible for their lives as well as my own. I was filled with fear. I couldn’t do anything that would jeopardize my freedom or sobriety, but even though I had a job, I couldn’t afford anyplace decent. Where were we going to sleep?

When I found out about VSH’s Family Apartments I was so relieved, finally, a safe affordable place where I could raise my kids. The apartment is also a place where I can grow and be a better person. Best of all, I’m not alone. My case manager is always available, supporting me and connecting me to community resources if I need them. For the first time in 15 years, I’m living life right.” – Barbara*, Family Apartment Resident

*”Barbara” is a pseudonym for a an actual VSH family client.

It’s cold outside…

Posted on January 5, 2010

When I got up to go walking  yesterday morning, it was 21 degrees.  That’s pretty cold for Richmond.  But I braved the cold to get some exercise, knowing that I would soon return to a warm house.

Not so for many of our brethren who are experiencing homelessness. The sad truth is that people do die from exposure right here in our own community.  I know that there were vigils here in Richmond and throughout the nation on December 21st to commemorate those individuals who have died while they were homeless.

At least Richmond and Norfolk have overflow or cold weather shelters that accommodate people with no place to live when the temperature goes below freezing.

Two years ago, 50 individuals were living on the streets, in their vehicles, or in abandoned buildings who now have their own safe AND warm apartments and are receiving the services they need in our A Place to Start program.  I hope we can continue to focus our efforts on these permanent solutions so that we don’t have to worry about people dying from the cold anymore.  Let’s face it, we have no control over the weather, but we can do something about its detrimental effects on society’s most vulnerable citizens.

Story of Hope – A Home for the Holidays

Posted on December 23, 2009

For many people, this is a season of hope and fulfillment. While many of us take the simple gifts of food, housing, health, and income  for granted, Virginia Supportive Housing extends a message of hope to some of our most vulnerable citizens who struggle to satisfy even these most basic of human needs. Stories like Sam’s (below) remind us that when compassion translates into action, the gift of hope can be fulfilled. Hope is what Virginia Supportive Housing is all about.

Sam has been a resident of New Clay House since 2002. Now in his late forties, Sam struggled for years with intellectual disabilities and the challenges of independent living. Throughout school, he was in special education classes and eventually dropped out in the 11th grade. Due to his cognitive impairment (his IQ measures at 50), he has never been able to consistently support himself although he would occasionally do farm or yard work. Without a reliable source of income, he was dependent on periodic assistance from local churches.

In his twenties, he moved to Richmond with no real plan or means of support. He spent time in shelters and on the streets, occasionally living with friends. Despite the critical impact that Sam’s disability was having a on his daily functioning, his attempts to apply for disability income were repeatedly denied until Virginia Supportive Housing came into the picture.

Thanks to VSH support services staff, Sam’s SSI claim was approved within 90 days. He now has a safe place to live and a steady income that meets his basic needs. For the first time in his adult life, Sam can share in the hope and fulfillment of the holiday season. Happy Holidays from Virginia Supportive Housing!

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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