Policies hold back those leading the fight against homelessness

Special Report by Chris Graham
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You hear the word homeless, and immediately what comes to mind is a person who has lost a job, a family without a home, kids suddenly tossed out into the night.

That situation is the exception, not the rule, according to local homeless advocates, who by and large work people who are homeless locally through mental-health and substance-abuse issues.

“You’re peeling back layers when they come to us,” said Wendy Shiflett at the Valley Mission in Staunton, where an estimated two-thirds of the homeless population any given week is made up of people with mental-health or substance-abuse issues – usually a combination of several of both.

It makes sense when Shiflett explains what could be a typical homeless case. You have someone with what started out as a mental-health issue going to their family and friends for help. Eventually their family and friends will grow weary of giving help or frustrated because they can’t. Which means now they’ve lost their support system.

So what do you do? You’re mentally ill, you’re cut off from your family and friends, you can’t find a place to live, people to help you, you can’t get your medicine. The average person, presented with such a dire circumstance, you do what you can do to help yourself feel a little bit better. You begin self-medicating.

Now we’ve got someone with mental-health issues, they’re not on their medicine, they’re completely cut off from everybody, and now they’re also taking drugs to try to get through the day the best they can.

“When we get people in here now who have substance-abuse issues, often we peel back the layers and find mental-health issues. People think, Oh, you’ve got substance abusers. But in many cases what you have are people with mental illness,” Shiflett said.

On top of that, then, you have issues with people being able to find and keep a job, to pay their rent and other bills on time. An economic downturn can certainly throw more people facing serious life issues to the brink, but it doesn’t take a mass of job cuts to push you over the edge if you’ve already got one foot in the air dangling off the cliff.

“You’d be surprised at how many people are waiting on their disability,” said Rita Wilson, a homeless advocate in Staunton who served on Staunton City Council for 16 years before retiring from city politics in 2008.

Wilson may have retired from city politics, but she’s still engaged intimately in the politics that is involved in navigating the system on behalf of her homeless clients. The word byzantine comes to mind when examining the system in place at the federal and state levels. “It can take you hours to get a live person on the telephone to answer your questions,” said Wilson, who speaks from experience on that count.

Wilson’s clients are all cases involving mental-health issues. Add another layer, then – you’re dealing with mental-health problems and likely some related substance-abuse issues, and you’re expected to deal with an inefficient bureaucracy that can test the patience of even a veteran advocate like Wilson.

On top of that is the reality that those on the brink who are receiving something in the way of government assistance don’t get much in terms of dollar assistance. Wilson’s clients receive somewhere in the area of $650 to $800 a month in assistance, “and you can’t live off that kind of money,” Wilson said. “The cheapest apartment you’re going to find is $500 a month, and that’s not even in a good situation. So let’s say you’re going to get $800 a month. It’s really hard if you’re trying to live a normal life, have a car, have cable, have a phone, and be able to make it on that alone.”

Wilson works under the auspices of a federal grant that requires her to close her cases within 90 days, “which is virtually impossible” to do, she said, considering the layers of issues that her clients have to deal with.

“I get my hand slapped,” Wilson said, for extending cases beyond the 90-day cutoff, “but what am I supposed to do?” She brings up the case of one client that she has been helping off and on for several months. “He gets disability. Six hundred dollars a month. I take him to the Food Bank because social services won’t work with him because he doesn’t meet their criteria. Valley Community Services Board won’t work with him because he doesn’t have mental-health issues. What are you going to do? I’m still going to work with him. Nobody else is going to work with him.

“They’re forgotten. People don’t want to deal with them. And it’s hard out there if you’ve got no money and no place to go,” Wilson said.

I tell you this story to explain why the Valley Mission foregoes federal grants that would similarly require it to close its cases after 90 days. It’s not that the Mission couldn’t use the money to expand what it does to help the homeless.

“More people leave before they’re ready to leave than there are people who stay too long,” Shiflett explains. “Who wants as an adult to live in a group situation where you have a 9 o’clock curfew on weeknights and you have to do so many job searches and you basically have to live under all of these rules? The answer to that question is the person who wants to live in that situation is the severely mentally ill. They want that structure, and need that structure.”

The most common length of stay at the Valley Mission is five days or less. These are the cases that you think of when you hear the word homeless – dad loses his job, and the family ends up out on the street for a day or two or three before family or a friend takes them in to help them get back on their feet.

Shiflett says the average length of stay at the Mission for those who make it past day five is two months. “And I’ve seen cases in our records of people who are here for more than a year,” she said.

“We can’t close cases in 60 days or 90 days just because of some requirement that we do so,” Shiflett said. “Getting people back on the right path is a very complicated process.”

The Valley Mission is repositioning itself to be able to meet the realities of homelessness. From its inception in 1971, the Mission was run with an emphasis on budget efficiencies foremost in mind, but of late the charity’s board of directors have made efforts to beef up staff with the idea in mind of being able to provide more guidance and direction to those who come through the doors.

“We need to have people to help peel back those layers,” Shiflett said. “They’re not going to come in here and say, Well, I need to be in an institution, but they didn’t have room for me, I didn’t qualify, so I started using this drug.”

So the Valley Mission and homeless charities like it across the country need more resources to be able to deal with the homeless population. And there are resources available through the federal government that come with strings attached.

And the strings attached can make it hard to effectively deal with the homeless population.

Attention, policymakers. Stop throwing good money after bad here.

Cut the strings and let the homeless advocates do what they need to do.


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