In the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, local homeless services providers scrambled to make sure that as many members of the area’s unsheltered homeless population as possible had a safe space to quarantine.
With capacity at area emergency shelters reduced due to social distancing, they provided hotel and motel vouchers—and the results were positive.
“We saw those who had never gone into shelter go into shelter,” said Samantha Shoukas, program director for the regional Continuum of Care, or CoC—the federally mandated organization that coordinates homeless services for the Fredericksburg area.
Shoukas said there are many reasons people resist going into communal shelters—among them past trauma, shelter rules or operating procedures, health concerns and lack of control.
But the option of a private room and bathroom was life-changing for some, and it underscored what many of those who work in the homeless response system say is the best way to end homelessness—housing.
“Housing is health care,” said several presenters at the Unsheltered Homelessness Summit hosted by the CoC on Wednesday morning.
The summit brought together local government, business, development and nonprofit representatives to learn about the area’s unsheltered homeless population and hear about housing approaches that have been successful in other places.
“What can we do to combat unsheltered homelessness once and for all?” CoC board Chairman Christian Zammas, who is also a business owner and former resident of the Thurman Brisben Shelter, said in his opening remarks. “In our region, everyone should have a secure home.
“We hope this summit leads to action unlike anything we’ve seen before,” he continued. “This is not a problem one locality can solve. It needs a regional approach.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines the “unsheltered” homeless as anyone whose primary nighttime residence is a place not designed for sleeping, such as a car, park, bus or train station, abandoned building or tent.
Shoukas said there are currently about 20 people living in the Fredericksburg area who fit this definition.
While the number of unsheltered homeless people has dropped since 2017, there has been an uptick in the number of people who are chronically homeless, which HUD defines as having been homeless—whether unsheltered or not—continuously for at least 12 months or on at least four separate occasions in the last three years.
“We are having people stay homeless longer,” Shoukas said.
Shoukas said 65 percent of the unsheltered homeless in the Fredericksburg area are white, 72 percent are male and 78 percent have a disability or past trauma. Sixty-one percent have mental health challenges and 68 percent have at least four adverse childhood experiences.
Shoukas said this population is the most challenging to house in local emergency shelters.
This year’s point-in-time count of the area homeless population, conducted in January, identified 18 unsheltered homeless people, yet there were 44 available shelter beds, she said.
Shoukas said permanent supportive housing—housing with wraparound services to address the other causes of homelessness—is the solution for this population.
It also costs the community less—$20 per person per night versus $68 for one night in jail, $718 for one night in a psychiatric hospital and $1,471 for one night in a medical hospital.
Shoukas said the area requires 75 more affordable units to meet the need of the unsheltered homeless community, as well as those who are living in hotels.
Yet market factors make affordability challenging.
Kim McClellan, public policy director for the Fredericksburg Area Association of Realtors, presented data showing that the median home price to date this year is $380,000.
She said supply chain delays plus the cost of land and lumber make it hard for developers to construct affordable housing units.
“It’s not that they won’t build affordable housing,” McClellan said. “It’s that they can’t.”
Summit attendees then heard from two other communities that are trying different approaches to meet the need for permanent supportive housing.
In the Charlottesville area this year, a coalition of local government, homeless response organizations and community nonprofits worked together to purchase a hotel with the goal of redeveloping it into permanent supportive housing units.
Anthony Haro with the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless said the idea came to him after the group successfully moved many chronically unsheltered homeless into hotels and motels, similar to what the local CoC has done.
The Charlottesville Area Community Foundation contributed $4.5 million to purchase a Red Carpet Inn and Virginia Supportive Housing is working to secure funding for redeveloping the building.
Julie Anderson with VSH said the $20 million renovation cost will be met with a combination of $10 million in federal low income housing tax credits plus local government and private foundation support.
The Albemarle Board of Supervisors assisted by contributing $186,000 to Haro’s initial search for noncongregate shelter for the homeless population and by approving the rezoning of the Red Carpet Inn property from commercial to neighborhood, said Stacy Pethia, housing policy manager for Albemarle County.
Attendees also heard from the developers of Eden Village, a tiny home community in Springfield, Mo., that opened in 2018 for the city’s chronically homeless population.
Meghann Cotter, director of Fredericksburg’s Micah Ecumenical Ministries, said the organization has plans for a development similar to Eden Village, to be called Jeremiah Community.
She said the organization is looking for five to 15 acres in the area as a site for the development.
Adele Uphaus–Conner: 540/735-1973