A Safe Home is Heaven

Posted on April 27, 2010

Born and raised in Richmond, Va., Anna Ray began her adult life as a waitress, single mother of three and victim of an abusive relationship. Overwhelmed by work and physical abuse, Anna lost custody of her children.

“I lost my mind and my income” Anna said.

Without any income, Anna was quickly forced to live on the streets. She slept at bus stops, abandoned buildings, balconies and friends’ houses. Anna recalls feeling very vulnerable as a woman.

Abusive relationships and gang rapes are just two of the many traumatic events Anna Ray* endured during her life on the streets.

Although it’s very difficult for her to talk about it, she goes into detail about how she was forced to trade sex for shelter. Anna recalls one instance when she slept with a man for shelter. That particular night he returned with a group of his friends who proceeded to take turns raping her.

During the days, Anna did temp work to get money for food. She said she would beg for food when she had to but never money as she feels it’s degrading.

Anna tried to get back on her feet financially by staying at a local shelter but said it was difficult to get temp work that was compatible with their (the shelter’s) rules and schedule.

She finally found hope when she spoke with a friend who was staying at New Clay House. Ready to do anything to get off of the streets, Anna contacted VSH immediately.

“VSH gave me a chance when no one else would,” said Anna.

Anna moved into New Clay House (NCH) soon after she contacted VSH. She said NCH finally gave her a place to go home to, a place that is hers and most of all, a place where she feels safe.

Anna feels like she now has the support she needs to lead a fulfilling life. Staff are there for emotional support and to help her obtain needed medications.

When asked what others should know about people experiencing homelessness Anna replied, “If you see a homeless person, help them out. Buy them food or at least treat them like they are human; smile and say ‘Hi’.”

*Name has been changed to protect program participant’s identity.

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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