Letter to Editor

Many Harrisonburg residents, whether they’ve lived in town for years or are students who reside here temporarily, turn the other cheek to the homelessness crisis in our community. My name is Shelby and on Aug. 23, I had the enlightening opportunity to attend Mayor Deanna Reed’s forum on homelessness. This forum presented vital information to interested community members that was both engaging and stimulating.

In a USA Today article published in July, Harrisonburg was recognized as the city in Virginia where concentrated poverty is increasing most rapidly. In an attempt to alleviate the effects of the homelessness crisis in Harrisonburg, organizations and elected officials have developed a 10-year action plan to combat homelessness in our community. Michael Wong, the executive director of the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority, detailed the importance of nine major initiatives of the action plan.

1. Ensure access to job placement services.

2. Expand the centralized intake process to ensure a “single point of entry” approach to coordinate and streamline existing local resources.

3. Implement prevention and rapid rehousing strategies.

4. Create permanent supportive housing for homeless individuals with severe needs, including chronic homelessness — which was defined as those who have experienced homelessness for three years, have disabilities and have experienced three or more counts of recurrence within the previously stated timeframe.

5. Create a landlord network to support rapid rehousing initiatives and to address biases some landlords exude based on tenants’ sources of income.  

6. Development of a street outreach and youth homelessness program.

7. Improve jail and hospital discharge planning processes.

8. Improve current data collection methods.

9. Improve outreach and community awareness of the 10 Year Plan to end Homelessness goals and objectives.

These initiatives have been addressed and implemented in various community organizations dedicated to assisting those who must face the burden of homelessness. Shannon Porter of Mercy House, Sam Nickles of Our Community Place and John Whitfield of Blue Ridge Legal Services did an incredible job addressing initiative No. 9 by educating the audience through the dispelling myths associated with the epidemic of homelessness. Aside from addressing the initiatives of the 10-year action plan, I found this portion of the forum to be most compelling. There are truths in this world that we ignore simply because it doesn’t match the myths we’ve been taught. This cognitive dissonance of perpetuating what makes sense to us but what lacks validity, is only hurting people in our community as they strive to tackle the effects of homelessness they experience daily. Given the importance of dispelling false information, the myths (numbered) and accurate information (lettered) about people experiencing homelessness, covered by Sam, John, and Shannon is as followed:

1. People who are homeless are that way because of their poor choices.

  1. First and foremost, homelessness is an economic issue and rarely occurs because of the choices people make. According to the National Coalition to end Homelessness, the top 5 causes of homelessness are 1) lack of affordable housing, 2) lack of a living wage, 3) domestic violence, 4) medical bankruptcy, and 5) mental illness.  As you can see, none of these causes are choices people make. People who experience homelessness are not unemployed, indigent, or transient, but working/lower middle class citizens who simply need affordable housing, according to 93 percent of respondents experiencing homelessness from the Homelessness Census in Santa Clara County.

2. The cause of homelessness is drug and alcohol abuse.

  1. Only 20 percent of people report drug or alcohol as the cause of their homelessness.  Drug and alcohol abuse is often a product of experiencing homelessness but rarely, if ever, the direct cause as reported by streetsteam.org.

  2. People experiencing homelessness are single men. Families are the fastest growing population experiencing homelessness. Nationally, the trend seen regarding homelessness is that most of those experiencing homelessness are single males while one third of the population experiencing homelessness is families. However in Harrisonburg, 57 percent of the population facing homelessness are active nuclear families and the largest demographic impacted by homelessness are children.  

3. People experiencing homelessness are transient/drifters.

  1. A recent study found that 75 percent of people experiencing homelessness are still living in the city in which they started experiencing homelessness. Studies have shown that people experiencing homelessness do not migrate for services but instead are moving to new areas: in search of work, because of family in the area, or other reasons NOT related to services.

4. People experiencing homelessness are unemployed.

  1. Declining wages have put housing out of reach for many workers so much so that in many states a minimum wage worker would have to work 87 hours/week to afford a two bedroom apartment at 30 percent of their income which is the federal definition of affordable housing.

5. Getting a job will keep someone from being affected by homelessness.

  1. The National Low Income Housing Coalition found that a full-time minimum wage worker would have to work between 69 and 174 hours/week (depending on the state) to pay for an “affordable” two bedroom rental unit. Again, the federal government defines “affordable” as 30 percent of a person’s income.

    1. This means a full-time minimum wage worker couldn’t afford a one or two bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent, a standard set by the federal government, in any state.

6. Homelessness is a permanent problem and we will never solve it.

  1. Completely false. There are effective solutions such as permanent supportive housing which would reduce homelessness and saves taxpayer dollars otherwise spent on costly shelters and hospitalization. Or targeted affordable housing assistance, living-wage jobs, and other supportive services like childcare, healthcare and access to transportation.  

7. There is a lack of sustainable work which would provide access to the above services such as childcare, transportation, and healthcare.

  1. The main source of frustration affecting those experiencing homelessness in Harrisonburg, and Virginia broadly, are Virginia’s laws concerning eviction and living standards. Virginia’s eviction rate is twice the national average and Virginia’s eviction laws aren’t helping to eliminate the problems.  In Virginia, tenants have a five day grace period for paying rent and for eviction notices whereas most state laws permit a 10 day grace period. Likewise, in Virginia it is legal to provide only one chance to tenants who miss the five day grace period as opposed to other states which allow multiple chances.  Also there are virtually no laws which protect the tenant from eviction or discrimination. In Virginia it is legal to discriminate based on income or situational circumstances, meaning landlords can deny tenants who qualify for Section VIII Housing or can deny tenants who are utilizing services from, for example, Mercy House.

  2. (Not so) Fun Fact: According to Evictionlab.org Richmond (2), Hampton (3), Newport News (4) Norfolk (6), Chesapeake (10), and all are included in the top-10 ranked cities in the United States for eviction.  

8. Fighting homelessness is expensive.

  1. Discretionary Programs that help low income people meet basic needs (mostly housing assistance) made up only 2.2 percent of the federal budget.

  2. The Central Florida Commission on Homelessness found housing costs $10,000 per person per year while leaving them homeless costs law enforcement, jails, hospitals, and other community services $31,000 per person per year.

The above list containing myths and accurate information of homelessness is by no means exhaustive, but I hope that it can provide a more encompassed understanding of the lives of those experiencing homelessness. I hope this serves as a stepping stone for those of you seeking to educate yourselves about the homelessness crisis in Virginia and specifically Harrisonburg. It is our responsibility and privilege as community members to assist in moving our community in the right direction so get involved. There are organizations in Harrisonburg that work to help community members experiencing homelessness including: Our Community Place, Mercy House, Blue Ridge Legal Services, Open Doors, Strength in Peers, First Step, Salvation Army and many more that can be found on HarrisonburgResourceCenter.org.

Contact Shelby Taraba at tarabasl@jmu.edu