Forum focuses Waynesboro on plight of local homeless

Hard numbers are hard to come by, but the anecdotal evidence suggests that Waynesboro has a growing homeless population, with limited resources to be able to assist those in need of a hand up.

“There might not be another time such as this when there is this much concern and support for action to do something about homelessness as there is right now,” said Lt. John Blevins, the pastor at The Salvation Army in Waynesboro, speaking at a community forum on homelessness Monday night at St. John’s Episcopal Church.

More than 110 people filled a fellowship hall at the church to hear from local police, school and social-services officials and representatives of the Valley Mission in Staunton. The forum comes several months after a late-spring murder involving members of a tent community that has sprung up along the banks of the South River that has become home to several local homeless individuals. The murder and reporting in the local media on it in the aftermath brought the plight of the homeless in Waynesboro to light for many for the first time.

“Some of our homeless are people who were productive members of society who have fallen on hard times. Others are people with mental-illness issues, substance-abuse issues, and have fallen through the cracks,” said Mark Kearney, the crime-prevention officer in the Waynesboro Police Department, who has reached out to several homeless individuals to try to be a resource for helping them get their lives turned around in the right direction.

A big obstacle in Waynesboro is the lack of a homeless shelter in the city limits. The Salvation Army had made plans back in the 1990s when it built its new church facility on B Street to accommodate transitional-housing needs, but the fundraising came up short and the transitional-housing component never get off the ground. The only option, then, is to send people to shelters in Staunton, Harrisonburg or Charlottesville, which means uprooting families from their support networks.

That also results in increased expenditures for the local school system. Vermell Grant, the assistant superintendent of Waynesboro Public Schools, said federal law requires school systems to provide transportation for homeless children to the school they were enrolled in when they became homeless, and that expenditures in that area have been on the increase every month since October.

Beverly Robinson, the director of pastoral care at the Valley Mission, said 10 percent of the Mission’s current 80-resident population is from Waynesboro. The 120-bed facility has served a recent high of 92 people back around the holidays, Thompson said.

Story by Chris Graham. Chris can be reached at freepress2@ntelos.net.

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