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Homelessness in Roanoke Raises Many Questions

Roanoke, Virginia is a humble city. A small urban center fostered by railroads, it retains the gritty charm of the industry built in decades past. The people are friendly, the culture quintessentially southern, the landscape almost as iconic as the 90-foot star watching over it. But the tranquility of Roanoke is juxtaposed by the growing population of people living on its streets.

For decades, people have preached that homelessness was slowly carving away at the populations of more rural towns like termites on wood: invisible until the weight of the hollow shell left behind is felt. Within recent years, however, residents have noticed a visible rise of poverty in Roanoke, that has manifested itself through a steady rise in panhandling, congested food-pantrys; and tent cities sheltered in patches of woods between city blocks.

Growth in the population of those experiencing homelessness is a complex topic, with misinformation and miscommunications found at the heart of the subject. While local inhabitants of Roanoke have seen more unsheltered people throughout the city, it is not a clear representation of the individuals who are struggling with homelessness as a whole.

“Unsheltered” is a term used to describe those who live outside of shelters. Those who do live in shelters usually stay in temporary housing which is provided by homeless agencies. In Roanoke Valley, the largest emergency shelter is in the Rescue Mission of Roanoke, where a Men’s Shelter and a Women / Children’s Shelter accept guests from all walks of life.

Statistically speaking, homelessness in the Blue Ridge has actually not increased, but massively decreased over the past 16 years. This data was collected from the annual Point in Time counts conducted by the Blue Ridge Continuum of Care. A Point in Time count is a government-mandated tally of all of the people experiencing homelessness in a region on a single January night.

Since 2021, the Blue Ridge Continuum of Care has begun a biannual count, with one during the summer and one during the winter. These counts provide crucial estimates, detailing the demographics of each person who they record, and giving leaders, in the fight to end homelessness, a direction to follow.

The number of individuals struggling with homelessness in the Blue Ridge has decreased from 566 in the year 2007 to 269 during the last report in 2022, a 70-percent difference. With such a massive change in the number of those enduring life without a steady home in the region, it comes as a surprise that there has recently been a noticeable difference in the amounts of those who live outside of shelters.

In 2007, 53 people were reportedly living outside of shelters, in contrast to the 91 unhoused people in 2022. Though the results were unexpected, the inhabitants of Roanoke are not incorrect: something has changed to cause such a large fluctuation in unsheltered people.

In a larger city, an extra forty people living outside of shelters would go unnoticed, but in a city where seeing a friend or neighbor on the street is not uncommon, even five extra people living outside creates a tsunami of cognizance. Many are quick to accuse the Covid-19 pandemic of being the catalyst that began the variations, and the sentiment is not incorrect, but it does not encapsulate the complete story.

During the first few years that Covid-19 affected the United States, many laws and ordinances were passed, aimed at limiting the spread of the illness. This caused shelters, such as the Rescue Mission of Roanoke, to limit the number of guests to which they could provide their services. In response to these precautions, non-congregate shelters, where people could live in isolated shelters such as hotel rooms, were made available as well.

The efforts of the city to appropriately manage the housing crisis of Covid-19 were ceaseless but could not fully combat the effects of the virus. A multitude of those who could not afford housing during the Pandemic were unsheltered, a substantial amount of which independently decided that the circumstances best fit their needs.

Kevin Berry, Director of Marketing and Communications at the Rescue Mission of Roanoke, and Vice Mayor Joe Cobb both believe that many people opt to not live in shelters because of their communal environments. For similar reasons, people may have avoided shelters during Covid-19, as to prevent themselves from contracting the virus. For many, the decision of where to stay during the pandemic was a product of where they felt that they would remain safest.

The pandemic certainly added a new layer to the housing crisis in Roanoke, one which was unique to this generation and had to be solved with unique methods. However, other reasons have contributed to the influx of people living outside of shelters that we see today.

In addition to disliking the social set-up of many of the shelters in Roanoke, people may have also had, in most cases incorrect, preconceived notions of the shelters, such as that they will be forced into substance abuse rehabilitation, required to practice the religion affiliated with the shelter, or that the shelter would have other expectations which the guest could or did not want to meet.

In the Roanoke Rescue Mission, however, all are welcome to come for a meal and stay for a night of rest in a bed. None are required to attend any religious ceremonies or participate in any other religious activity, and they simply ask that guests do not use restricted substances, such as illegal drugs and alcohol, while on the premises.

People in Roanoke Valley are not sitting around and waiting for the issue to solve itself but are actively trying to assist the effort to get everyone in the region the care and refuge that they need to thrive. At the Rescue Mission of Roanoke, a medical street outreach team is being operated. The team is comprised of friendly volunteers with the tenacity to get outside and engage with the unsheltered people of the community, rather than waiting for them to choose to visit the shelter.

The goal of the outreach team is to simply remind the people who are not utilizing the non-profit and its resources that the Rescue Mission of Roanoke is steadfastly present to attend to their needs. Kevin Berry explained, “Our medical street outreach is just one way that we are working to build relationships with those who, for whatever reason, have decided not to come to the Rescue Mission.” In essence, through providing medical support to people outside of the Rescue Mission, they hope to show their dedication to helping the underserved communities of Roanoke.

Other strides that the community is making towards decreasing the number of people affected by homelessness include other services, such as The Drop-in Center, where they offer a variety of medical care services and public health education. The Rescue Mission also offers the Fralin Free Clinic which provides medical care and rehabilitation service. Another simple step that the Rescue Mission is taking to make guests feel more included, is placing a volunteer at the dining line to greet and connect with new and veteran visitors alike.

Another non-profit, The Least of These Ministries, offer space for people to do laundry, shower, and complete other basic activities to improve their well-being. They even have a “warming bus” during the colder months, a bus which is kept running with heat, which is available to stay in. People all over the city and region are finding extraordinary methods to serve those who are underprivileged in their community.

At the end of the day, it is rare for people who are struggling with homelessness to want to remain in their situations. It is not enjoyable to be unsure of where your next meal will come from, how you will get to work, or where you can safely spend the night.

Homelessness is a result of instability, and few realize how minuscule a change must occur in someone’s life to have cataclysmic effects on their financial and living situation. In the words of Vice Mayor Cobb, “I think sometimes as a community it is hard to see the face of homelessness, because sometimes we see our own vulnerabilities, and that contributes a lot to the stigma.”

There are countless opportunities to get involved in the fight to end homelessness in Roanoke. Will you show your support?

– Sophia Stringer



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