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Waynesboro: Don’t sweep your homeless problem under the rug

Column by Chris Graham

waynesboroCut the strings and let the homeless advocates do what they need to do. That was how I concluded a special report on homelessness in Staunton and Waynesboro that we published back in March, which found that the resources available at the state- and federal-government levels to deal with homelessness aren’t trickling down to the local level very well, at least not here.

What was left unsaid in that piece is how Waynesboro among the sister cities has been doing almost nothing to address or even acknowledge its own homelessness issue – which is now evident with the glare of newspaper headlines and TV-news reports surrounding the recent murder of a homeless man in a tent city set up on the banks of the South River.

Let’s be careful to paint as accurate a picture as possible of what we’re facing here. The face of homelessness isn’t a person who has just lost a job and the ability to keep up with rent or mortgage payments. It might make us feel better to think this is so, but in fact that is the exception and not the rule, according to local homeless advocates, who point to long-term mental-health and substance-abuse issues among the homeless as being the factors that they spend their time focusing on.

“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 is made up of people with mental-health or substance-abuse issues – usually a combination of several of both.

The early indications on what happened leading to the killing of John K. Miller, 44, carry those overtones with them. A police spokesman has said that the death appears to have been the result of an alcohol-related incident, and the encampment where the incident took place is said by a homeless advocate to be a preferred place of residence because it doesn’t have the rules and structure that shelters like the Valley Mission have in place.

Rules and structure, one could argue, are exactly what those who are where they are because of issues with substance abuse and undiagnosed or untreated mental-health issues would need to get their lives back on track.

“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.

Which is to say, the solution is more than giving people who are homeless a hot and a cot. Ignoring the homeless population isn’t working, either, as we’ve seen with the recent headlines, and the reaction, or lack thereof, of officialdom to a recent spate of rather aggressive panhandling in Downtown Waynesboro that has pushed some business owners into upping their private-security measures.

A physical structure of some sort that can serve as a homeless shelter would be a start, no question, but the shelter can’t simply be a refuge for people with issues who aren’t willing to take those issues on head-on. A support network including counseling and medical-service providers has to be in place on-site, or else all we’d be doing is the hot and a cot. There’d have to be rules and structure and expectations to justify the time and effort.

And yes, I realize fully that there are going to be people who say, To hell with this, I ain’t playin’ by their stupid rules. My response to that is twofold. One, there will also be people who decide that they want to better themselves and will take the hand up. Two, I’d suggest for those who choose not to that we adopt the stern-parent approach. You’re free to do what you want to do, but you’re not free to infringe on the private-property rights of others, you’re not free to violate open-container and drinking-in-public laws, you’re not free to harass and intimidate people through aggressive panhandling, and if you engage in these illegal activities, you will be dealt with accordingly.

That’s one role the city government can play in this, through law enforcement. Marshaling the resources of the Department of Social Services, the Valley Community Services Board and other public and quasi-public agencies is another role the city can fill in this as well.

Community groups can step forward by redirecting their efforts in a way that leads to the opening and day-to-day operations of a homeless shelter in Waynesboro along the lines of what Staunton has with the Valley Mission, which if you ask me is something that is desperately needed and long overdue.

What we cannot do as a community in the wake of this wakeup call is make the effort instead to try to sweep the dirt under the rug and hope that pushing it out of view makes it go away.

augusta free press
augusta free press