Home Ending homelessness: What can Waynesboro do to prevent the next Tent City?

Ending homelessness: What can Waynesboro do to prevent the next Tent City?

Crystal Graham
homeless soup winter
(© alfa27 – stock.adobe.com)

The area on Essex Avenue in Waynesboro, known as Tent City or Tentpocalypse according to residents, is no more. The homeless men and women living there packed up their belongings on Tuesday.

Residents were asked to vacate the premises by 9:30 a.m. today or face possible criminal trespassing charges.

Waynesboro Police Department Sgt. Jamie Dunn told AFP on Wednesday that “no arrests were made” and there are “no issues to report” regarding Tent City.

With cold-weather shelters at capacity and no day shelter in Waynesboro, Tent City residents seemed unsure of exactly where to go.

Their belongings are now safely secured in a storage unit – until they find their next “home.”

In Charlottesville, Anthony Haro serves as the executive director and only employee of the Blue Ridge Area Coalition of the Homeless. BRACH serves the city of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Nelson, Louisa, Fluvanna and Greene counties. The goal of BRACH is to end homelessness.

“We stay focused on housing solutions, and housing ends homelessness,” said Haro in an interview with AFP.

Day shelters part of emergency plan

On the Downtown Mall, Charlottesville has something Waynesboro does not – a day shelter, The Haven. They also have additional space with a seasonal shelter offered by People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry, or PACEM, and a Salvation Army shelter.

The Haven opened in 2010 and is open from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a one-hour closure for lunch each day. The facility provides a place for the homeless to congregate during the day with showers, laundry, a physical mailing address, storage bins and computers.

“Haven provides a safe space for people to be during the day,” Haro said. “It acts as a connection to other housing services as well, and to other community resources. It’s a connection point. It’s a place to be safe and comfortable.”

However, Haro doesn’t believe that a day shelter is a solution by itself.

“You can build the biggest shelter with the best amenities, but if people can’t sleep there at night, they’re still homeless,” Haro said. “And I think that’s really important for every community to think about.”

In Charlottesville and cities and counties around the nation, the goal is generally to move homeless men and women into permanent affordable housing – with subsidized rent. The problem is that most localities do not have adequate affordable housing. Waynesboro and Charlottesville are not alone in that regard.

“We have been getting involved in opportunities to develop new housing specifically designated for people experiencing homelessness,” Haro said. “We’ve been putting a lot of resources in that area. Because we know that the existing housing market itself is not sufficient to really meet the needs of homeless persons. We actually need to develop new housing specifically designed to address homelessness in addition to rent assistance.”

Pre-COVID, Charlottesville on average moved people from homeless to permanent housing in 50 days. In 2022, the average is now 162 days.

“It’s been a struggle this past year to adequately meet the need,” Haro said.

A shelter for the homeless, day and night, is a vital piece of the overall puzzle, according to Haro, because every community must address immediate needs, but the bigger issue is housing and rental assistance.

“Shelter services are a vital piece of the puzzle but if it’s done in a silo and not connected to opportunities for housing, or if there’s not another project in the works to address housing, it’s only going to go so far,” Halo said.

In Harrisonburg, city leaders have allocated American Rescue Plan Act funding, or ARPA funds, to the purchase and development of property on North Main Street which will eventually serve as a multi-use facility with a day shelter, 75 permanent beds and 25 cold-weather beds. The goal is to open the sleeping portion of the site some time this year.

Construction will likely continue on the building through 2024 with plans for showers, laundry, a commercial kitchen, dining hall, and community and multi-purpose rooms. The estimated cost of the project is $5 million plus ongoing annual expenses.

While the City of Harrisonburg is providing the funding for the construction, they will soon put out an RFP for an organization to run the day services and overnight shelter. Additional funds will be needed for the annual operation and maintenance of the property and will likely come from the city’s Civic and Community Organization grant funds, part of the general budget.

Role of government, partnerships

Back over the mountain in Charlottesville, Haro said they mostly rely on local government for zoning and funding.

“I think a good relationship is one of trust between local government and nonprofits where local government is really there to support the work of the direct service providers in the community – and you know, understand how they can best support it, usually though money,” Haro said. “Funding is a crucial piece of the puzzle where you have nonprofits that are usually the experts and are able to carry out the programs.”

The key, at least as far as Haro is concerned, is to also take time to develop partnerships with affordable housing developers and to set aside a number of units for this special population with new construction.

Transitioning out of tent cities

“What you want to do is get your system to a place where there’s enough opportunities for people to leave homelessness that’s outpacing, ideally, the rate at which people are falling into homelessness,” Haro said. “But if your outflow is stagnant, the population of the homeless is just going to begin to grow and grow and grow, and shelter options are limited.

“That’s how tent cities largely develop, because there’s not enough shelter space for people.”

In South Carolina, Haro said he was part of helping people transition out of a 100-person tent city.

“A crucial part of that puzzle was an interim place for people to stay. You have to address the immediate needs,” Halo said. “And you know that can be difficult for communities to figure out.

“I’m not necessarily suggesting that a new shelter be built,” Halo said. “Maybe there could be an existing property that can be used in an interim kind of fashion, or hotel space.

“You can create more shelter space to address the issue. Or you can create more housing to address the issue. Or you can do both. I would advocate that you at least do both. If you only address this issue with shelter space, you’re not really addressing the issue, because it’s not really solving the underlying issue.”

Affordable housing: A doorstep to ending chronic homelessness?

Through a partnership with organizations like the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, Virginia Supportive Housing, the Piedmont Housing Alliance and PACEM, BRACH found a hotel for sale and were able to get a $4.5 million grant for Piedmont Housing to purchase the site. The rooms have been renovated and are being used now to shelter the homeless.

The next steps, said Haro, are for Virginia Supportive Housing to build an apartment building on the hotel site, with 80 additional units, and Piedmont Housing Alliance, to build affordable housing on the site, with 60 units – and a number of units set aside specifically for the homeless. Construction will begin soon on the additional housing units.

“We’re hopeful that it will get us to the doorstep of ending chronic homelessness,” Haro said. “We’re going to need more developments of a similar ilk for us to actually get ahead of the issue properly. It’s one really important piece, but it can’t be the end to the story. We’re already looking at new opportunities to do the same thing.

“It’s important to set up both short-term and long-term plans,” Haro said. “But if housing isn’t a part of some of those plans, you’re going to be back in the same situation.”

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Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.