Ask around and Rockbridge area residents may be surprised to learn about the homeless population in the area. Or that there even is one.
“The homeless go mostly unrecognized in this area,” says Meredith Downey, Director of the local Department of Social Services.
Downey explains that while homeless people in urban areas may sleep in churches or shelters, people without homes in Rockbridge are forced to find different means for shelter.
“Some folks live out of their cars. Some park at the truck stop where they can use the shower facilities. A few live in the National Forest,” she says. “We do keep a supply of sleeping bags and blankets which we give out if needed.”
The Department of Social Services aims to meet the needs of Rockbridge’s poor population, which, Downey explains, can consist of six to ten homeless people at any given time.
While Social Services can often provide assistance to people facing foreclosure, once they are evicted there is very little the department can do.
So does Rockbridge need its own shelter?
“Yes,” she says. “Much smaller scale, but yes. I think we need one.
She says that volunteers personally drive homeless people in need of a place to stay to one of the shelters.
“There’s an interesting notion behind the idea that when we have someone experiencing homelessness we ship them off to another community,” she says. “That concerns me.”
Frey advocates a Housing First model, which works to give people in need of government assistance an address so they can apply for the benefits they’re eligible for.
“When we get people into a home, then we can start giving them the rest of these services that they need.”
The model, she explains, is popular in surrounding counties, but is yet to be brought to Rockbridge. She says she is hopeful, however, because funding for the program is increasing, and there is evidence of a “healthy debate” about bringing the model to Rockbridge.
This type of conversation is precisely what should be taking place if the area hopes to address homelessness, Frey says.
“I definitely think it’s an issue that our community doesn’t talk about a lot. It’s kind of hard to get answers. We don’t have a lot of established services or structures for individuals experiencing homelessness, and that’s a concern.”
Jenny Davidson, who works with Frey in the Shepherd program, attributes this lack of discussion to Rockbridge’s rural setting. She says that while homeless people in cities may be seen on street corners or under bridges, the homeless in Rockbridge “tend to remain hidden.”
All three women working to alleviate the burden of the homeless agree that the first step is getting the conversation started.
“[The homeless] need to have basic needs met,” Frey says. “They need to have a home.”
Not Homeless, But Dangerously Close
In addition to Rockbridge area’s homeless population, many citizens are unaware that there is also a large group of people who are on the verge of being homeless.
“Underhoused” or “shelter poor” are the terms most commonly used to describe this sect of the population
“To be underhoused [means] that you don’t have a residence,” Frey says. “And so you’re staying with friends and relatives…you’re staying on couches.”
People classified as shelter poor are often eligible for relief programs. Total Action for Progress, or TAP, is an organization based out of Roanoke, Va. that offers programs to help struggling individuals and families.
Mike Thompson, a TAP employee, works from the company’s Lexington office.
“We have people [in Rockbridge] who are just a paycheck away from being homeless,” Thompson says.
Thompson explains that TAP offers two types of aid. The first form is called an “Emergency Solutions Grant.” To qualify, applicants must be receiving a salary that is at or below 30 percent of the state median income.
Thompson said that this grant does not apply to people who have mortgages, but it can apply to those renting property.
The second form is the “Homeless Prevention Program.” For this, a person’s income must be between 30 and 60 percent of the state’s median income. Many participants in this program are individuals facing foreclosure.
The program aims to prevent foreclosures from transpiring. It can also assist those who are living in shelters or staying at a friend’s residence.
Vicky Agnor, program director of Rockbridge Area Rental Assistance (RARA), is also heavily involved with the shelter poor population. Her agency rents affordable property to people struggling to find homes.
In Lexington, the Robert E. Lee Hotel used to be a housing development for low income or disabled individuals. The building is currently under construction to repurpose it into a luxury hotel. As a result, the former residents had to move out and relocate.
Agnor and RARA took charge of this relocation project. The residents now live in various houses and apartment complexes, including Willow Springs Apartments, Green Hills Apartments, Lexington House, and Hunt Ridge Apartments.
In order to qualify for RARA aid, a family must be making at or below 50 percent of Rockbridge area’s median income. The percentage is based on the size of an applicant’s family. For example, 50 percent of the median income for a family of four is $27,050.00; for a family of eight, it’s $35,750.00.
Residents can see if they are eligible at http://www.vhda.com/BusinessPartners/PropertyOwnersManagers/Income-Rent-Limits/Pages/HUDMedianIncome.aspx#b.
In 2010, Agnor said that 385 families received aid. Since then, the wait list has grown so significantly that RARA has not been able to take any new applications this year.
“We are not an immediate relief agency,” saysid Agnor.
When a candidate’s name comes up, the application is reviewed, and RARA does a criminal record check on the person. If he or she passes this check and qualifies for aid based on total family income, RARA offers the applicant its services.
Like Frey, Thompson and Agnor, Downey sees the lack of attention paid to the homeless and shelter poor populations as one of the community’s biggest shortcomings.
“So many people say that [the issue] just doesn’t exist,” said Downey. “And it does exist. And it’s not [just] the low-income poor person who we’re seeing in this situation. Right now we have people whose mortgages have gone up on them because they got behind and they tried to refinance…we have people [whose] hours have been cut, [whose] salaries were cut 10 percent and [who are now] living on a tight budget.”
* Cowritten by Meaghan Latella
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