news warm falling short of funds needed to house homeless in coldest months
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Waynesboro: Homeless agency needs $40k to get through winter months

homeless man
(© Photographee.eu – stock.adobe.com)

With temperatures dipping as low as 21 degrees this week, it’s unsettling to think that there are homeless people, homeless children, with no place to call home in the Waynesboro area.

In city schools, 57 children had no permanent address at the start of the school year – children who are staying with friends or family, sleeping at cheap hotels, or in cars, or worse, sleeping on the streets.

Waynesboro Area Refuge Ministry, or WARM, is doing what it can to house families, but their year-round housing is limited. WARM is housing about nine of the homeless children at its Anderson House.

For many of the unsheltered adults in Waynesboro, they call a strip of land along the South River home. Nicknamed “Tent City,” the residents there do not have nearby access to electricity, bathrooms or trash service making their living conditions … well, anything but.

Cold Weather Shelters

On Nov. 21, during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, WARM will open its Cold Weather Shelters to give the homeless an alternative to sleeping outside.

The Cold Weather Shelters are open thanks to partners including churches in Waynesboro and Augusta County – and Augusta Expoland.

Most are only open at night with everyone out by 7 a.m. – leaving those without jobs back on the streets during the cold winter days, finding shelter at the library or other public buildings.

Some of the people in Tent City choose to stay where they are despite outreach to encourage them to seek shelter inside – and WARM still works with area agencies to make sure they are as comfortable as possible with meals, supplies and support, and to make sure they know where the shelters are, if the weather worsens, and they change their mind.

“We hope that when it really starts getting cold and the frozen precipitation starts falling, that they will acquiesce and come and see us,” said Brian Edwards, the acting executive director for WARM and the board chair for the organization.

The Cold Weather Shelters provide meals for those who stay there – dinner and breakfast the next morning – and a warm place to sleep. But space is limited to 35 beds per night.

Augusta Expoland will be home to the shelter for four of the colder weeks this winter – and unlike most of the shelter locations, will be open 24/7.

In a perfect world, a day shelter could be a long-term solution. There was talk about it before COVID, but like many programs, it was put on the backburner during COVID. Now, Edwards said, it’s something that’s not in the immediate plans. The cost would likely be upwards of $1.5 million to build.

Once the organization hires an executive director, the board is hoping they may have ideas, too. So until that position is filled, they aren’t having the conversation.

If I don’t see it, then it’s not a problem

The Tent City in Waynesboro isn’t seen by most Waynesboro residents. Occasionally, someone walking on the greenway or living nearby might get a glimpse of one or two of the makeshift tents.

But for most people in Waynesboro, Edwards said, if they don’t see it, then it’s not a problem.

In bigger cities, the unsheltered population are far more visible – on park benches, city streets and other public spaces.

The people that are seen in Waynesboro pan handling in street medians aren’t the homeless people that Edwards works with. They have debit cards. Most have cars. They have cell phones. The homeless Edwards works with generally don’t have those things.

One of the big problems for getting help where it’s needed most is that people wrongly assume that the homeless are bad people.

Edwards, a former police officer, understands the mentality. His church in Fishersville was one of the first host churches for the Cold Weather Shelters.

“I was looking at the list of folks, these are people that I’ve arrested,” Edwards said, thinking back. “They are just going to come to my church and cause problems. They didn’t do that. And I felt bad.

“I feel that’s why I’m drawn to WARM now. I really want to work hard because I had all those misconceptions. But it was an evolution for me, and it was getting involved.

“If we don’t have a place for homeless people to go, when there is a problem, they go to one of two places: to the emergency room or to Middle River (Regional Jail). Those are not good options.”

Many of the unsheltered have jobs but can’t find affordable housing. Some live in their cars as a result, or worse. Some, admittedly, struggle with mental health issues or addiction.

In addition to a warm place to sleep and serving meals, the goal of WARM and other supporting agencies is to help the unsheltered find steady employment, affordable housing, substance abuse care, mental health care and physical care.

“I think we’re going to have to start first as a paradigm shift that homeless are bad people, and they’re not. People just need to shift their mindsets first, and then I think anything could happen.”

What is needed

While the Cold Weather Shelters open Nov. 21, the goal is to keep them open through early spring.

At this time, WARM doesn’t have enough funds to keep them open for the duration.

Edwards said the organization needs two things, volunteers and funding:

  • Volunteers to help prepare meals
  • Businesses to help provide meals
  • Funds to help with laundry expenses
  • Funds to help with administrative costs

WARM is about $40,000 short of meeting the funding required for administrative and food costs for the shelters. And then there are unexpected costs for the organization, like the catalytic converter was cut out of the WARM van, and that’s at the repair shop now with costs expected of around $1,700.

“We’re hoping for funding and corporate sponsors so we can go ahead and get what we need to get through the whole season,” Edwards said. “Because once we start, our plan is not to stop until Easter comes.”

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Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked 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.