Challenges in fighting homelessness

Published 10:01 am Thursday, May 7, 2020

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Sharon Harrup

The lack of a shelter in the area and a lack of funds severely limits STEPS Inc.’s ability to aid the homeless in its six-county region. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted this issue, while also making it even worse.

“We desperately need a shelter in our region, whether that’s a shelter with just three beds or whether that’s a shelter that would have four to 10 beds,” STEPS President and CEO Sharon Harrup said. “Because what happens is that … when the funding drops July 1, it’s expended usually by the end of October or November, and we haven’t even hit the coldest part of the year.”

STEPS operates the Virginia Homeless Solutions Program (VHSP), and is funded through the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.

“Shelter services and shelter dollars are the smallest pot of money that we get through the Virginia Homeless Solutions Program,” she said.

Christin Jackson, STEPS vice president of workforce development, said the shelter money STEPS receives from the state and federal governments covers a case manager’s position, and a small percentage can be used for administrative costs to help the VHSP function.

“And basically then the rest can be spent on the actual participants,” Jackson said. “So, really, shelter-wise, we only had $28,000 to begin with.”

She confirmed this $28,000, delivered in July, had been expended by October, and if the pandemic had been active in July, that amount would have been expended even sooner.

Near the end of the year, the government sent STEPS $1,325 in shelter money after assessing the areas that did not spend their appropriated money and reallocating it to areas that had, Jackson noted. STEPS also received money from its Christmas craft show and its Feb. 12 Soup and Sandwich fundraiser.

Money from all these sources has gone to help provide shelter for the homeless in STEPS’ six-county region, which includes Amelia, Buckingham, Cumberland, Lunenburg, Nottoway and Prince Edward counties. Due in part to the pandemic, however, the money is also being expended quickly.

“Basically we’ve spent $5,350 or so already since the pandemic hit, just putting people in hotels and that sort of thing … until we can get them something more solid, because that’s our goal,” Jackson said. “We can’t afford to put them in there long-term, so we have to work really close with them to see if we can find them a better solution that will last them longer than a couple nights.”

She noted money from the Soup and Sandwich fundraiser is the only thing allowing STEPS to help provide shelter for anyone right now, but as of April 29, STEPS was down to $3,300 left.

Jackson explained how the amount STEPS receives from the state and federal governments in July is determined.

“We’re not given a lot of funds because they base funds on the point-in-time count that they do every January, like we did at Jan. 22 of this year,” she said.

On that date, STEPS workers went out and looked for homeless people.

“We don’t live in a big city, so there’s no shelters, first off,” she said. “There’s Madeline’s House, which they always pitch in and help with us, so that’s wonderful.”

She said Madeline’s House did surveys for the people that were staying there that night.

“But other than that, we go out and look for people that are homeless, and this year, we only found like two other people that weren’t already staying at Madeline’s House, just out on the streets that night, and that’s over six counties that we cover,” she said. “So it’s just different here than it is in cities where they have shelters and they get to go in shelters and just count people there and survey them and then have some that are out on the sidewalks and streets.”

Jackson said STEPS’ region is so rural, half the localities do not have sidewalks.

“So there’s no people there to be counted, and then (the governments) turn around and base their funds on that,” she said. “They think we don’t have a lot of homeless people, but we really do.”

While STEPS will sometimes transport homeless people to Salvation Army shelters in places like Lynchburg, Richmond, Petersburg or Charlottesville, Harrup noted some do not want to leave the area. Jackson pointed out that STEPS’ sheltering efforts cost possibly more than usual because the organization is paying for hotel rooms, which are the only locations STEPS has to shelter individuals in its region.

STEPS also has to check to see if the people in question qualify for the shelter program.

“For the shelter program, you have to be completely homeless,” Jackson said. “That doesn’t mean you spent the night at a friend’s house last night. That doesn’t make you homeless. You have to have basically slept in your car. You have to have no place to go, and you cannot have any assets of more than $500, and your car doesn’t count. So you can have a car, but you can’t have any actual other assets that are worth more than $500. If you have money in the bank, you have to go through that first, and then potentially we can help you.”

Harrup said what she and her staff find in STEPS’ communities is there oftentimes are people that will present with what they consider an emergency situation, but it is really not.

“In our communities, we’re still going to have those people that are, without any doubt, eligible and in need of services,” she said. “That will be on one end of the spectrum. And then you’re going to have on the other end of the spectrum people that simply see this as an opportunity to change their current living situation. And then you’re going to have people that fall in the middle that probably are maybe one paycheck away from a crisis, but they’re not currently homeless, literally homeless.

“And that’s the part of it that it’s not up to us to truly gauge whether the situation is an emergency or not,” she continued. “We have to rely on the information that the client supplies.”

For those that qualify for the program, Harrup said STEPS makes it a priority to try to help them beyond just that night.

“The other part of it is, we are attempting to assist these clients to never have this happen to them again, which means we encourage them to do some financial literacy training,” she said. “We encourage them to go out and look for work, and we know that COVID-19 has really hampered all of our way of normal doing business. But that’s part of what we’re finding.”

Jackson spoke about what could help STEPS better serve the homeless in the region.

“We could always use more funds, but a shelter in this area would be fabulous,” she said. “It would be great to put funds toward the shelter and pay that instead of having to pay hotel costs. I think in the long run that would save lots of money, and we could be able to serve more people at one time.”

Harrup said in recent history, she and her staff were very much hoping there would be some momentum to access a building, renovate it to meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines and then find some way to generate funds to keep a shelter running year-round. However, there just was not any availability of funds.

“I’m thinking that through all of this COVID situation, this may be a time for us to revisit that,” she said. “Is it possible that STEPS could then maybe purchase or lease a building, at least do some renovations to make it ADA-compliant so that we would have that building accessible?”

She said this is what she and her staff would love to see happen.

“STEPS is more than happy to facilitate the conversation of how does that start, where do we look, what do ongoing costs look like,” she said. “What level of support could we find in the community, not only for that initial capital outlay but just for operational costs, utility bills, paying staff to stay, those types of things.”