An estimated 215 people in the Roanoke region don’t have a home.
The Roanoke City Council recently outlawed the homeless camping on sidewalks downtown. But, there have long been more services for the homeless in the city than in other localities in Southwest Virginia.
The Roanoke Times asked for input on addressing the issue in 2022 and beyond from the 11 candidates seeking election or reelection to the council in the Nov. 8 election. Nine of the candidates are running for three council seats.
The Democrats in that race are incumbents Joe Cobb and Vivian Sanchez-Jones, in addition to Peter Volosin.
Republicans running are Dalton Baugess, Nick Hagen and Maynard Keller.
Running as independents are David Bowers, Jamaal Jackson and Preston Tyler.
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Also this year, voters will decide a special election to fill the remaining two years of the term of former Councilman Robert Jeffrey Jr. Running in that race are Democrat Luke Priddy and Republican Peg McGuire.
Below are the candidates’ answers to a series of homelessness-related questions, listed by last name in alphabetical order. Some passages have been edited for grammar, spelling or brevity.
Q: The Roanoke City Council on June 21 endorsed a staff recommendation to spend $5 million more to address homelessness starting this fiscal year. The money will come from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act grant. What should be done with the money?
Baugess: The homeless issue is no longer a Roanoke problem. This is a regional problem that needs to be dealt with. The homeless people are on the streets because of something that has happened in their life, whether it’s an economic catastrophe, mental health issues or substance abuse problems. The homeless at times put a burden on emergency services, hospital emergency room and local stores in the area they call home. Localities outside the Roanoke region bus their homeless to Roanoke for services. We need to reach out to them, tell them we are having our own homeless crisis. Other localities need to deal with their own homeless problem and not bus them to Roanoke. I feel sorry for them because no one wants to be homeless.
Bowers: The current Roanoke City Council has different priorities than I would have, if elected. “Priority One” should be efforts to fully staff our nationally accredited “Roanoke’s Finest” police department (down 59 officers officially, 80-100 unofficially), our sheriff’s office (down 31) and Fire-EMS department (number unknown).
If permissible under ARPA, I’d be more inclined to spend $5 million on restaffing those three departments as crime and gun violence are the leading concerns of city residents. My wife, in fact, is sometimes afraid of walking alone on the Roanoke River Greenway with our little dog Dupee.
Spending $5 million “more” to address homelessness is excessive. It’s not clear to me from your question how much the city is already spending. However, Roanokers should know where the current council proposes to spend an additional $5 million.
Cobb: To best determine how to invest these funds in the community, I would draw on the recent survey by the Blue Ridge Interagency Council on Homelessness (governing body of the Blue Ridge Continuum of Care) of persons who are experiencing homelessness, businesses, residents, service providers and city departments.
I would recommend that our local government work collaboratively with these partners to fund these identified needs:
Non-traditional emergency shelter and support services ($1 million)
Tiny home village, with options for persons who have pets and are uncomfortable staying in an existing emergency shelter.
Safe parking program, a parking lot owned by the city or a private company that people who are living in their car can park in overnight to sleep.
Safe house for LGBTQ+ youth and young adults.
Affordable housing ($3 million)
Continued investment with the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority to increase availability of housing vouchers
Work with community partners to rehabilitate old homes into low income housing and permanent supportive housing costing $500 to $700 a month.
Invest in the land bank to rehabilitate abandoned houses into new homes for low-income and currently unsheltered residents.
Outreach and support services ($1 million):
Hire additional Homeless Assistance Team outreach workers) and Community Housing Resource Center staff.
Restrooms and showers throughout the city.
Mental health and substance use services.
Assistance with obtaining identification.
Hagen: In order to best address the issue of homelessness, we need a more robust approach to what we are currently doing. I would like to see that money utilized in ways which have the best chance of reducing homelessness. This will be done by working with local nonprofit groups as well as businesses that wish to provide the necessary services for homeless individuals such as addiction treatment, mental health services, shelter services and the mechanisms for those individuals to become self-sufficient. It is imperative that we utilize our tools to help those with addiction or mental health issues early. I would like to see the $5 million used in grants being given toward programs which have a proven track record of helping to address the needs of homeless individuals and providing real pathways towards residing in a home self-sufficiently.
Jackson: The money should be used to build more shelters and decent long term housing for the homeless. One way is by acquiring and renovating abandoned homes or buildings. The money could also be used to invest in job and life skills training. Money should be used to strengthen the agencies that are already in place, working to reduce homelessness and recidivism.
Keller: We need to address the homelessness situation in Roanoke. I’ve heard several reports of other localities giving their homeless one-way bus tickets to Roanoke. This must stop immediately. Localities across the commonwealth must address their own situations and not ship their homeless here and overwhelm Roanoke’s limited resources. Five million dollars is a lot of money. How many Roanoke homeless are we talking about? 100? 200? 300? What would this money do? Can we not use the ARPA money to support existing organizations such as the Roanoke Rescue Mission, which offers incredible services and addresses the root causes of homelessness? For homeless veterans, the Veterans Administration offers medical care and resources.
McGuire: My Catholic faith teaches that we, as Christians, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked and house the homeless. But my faith also teaches that instead of giving fish, we teach a person to fish.
This problem isn’t something that the government can solve on its own. It will take our houses of worship, independent nonprofit, and governmental agencies working together. Recent data show us that homelessness stems from addictions, mental illness and trauma. If we want to fight homelessness, we not only have to find shelter, clothing and food for the homeless, we have to treat the underlying causes.
Treatment for addictions and mental illness should be front and center in any strategy. Every person entering through the doors of any shelter should be counseled on the treatments, therapies and training available to place them on the path of permanent housing.
Priddy: Those on the front lines working to end homelessness know best how to utilize these funds. In order for this money to be allocated responsibly, I believe the city should follow a process to develop recommendations similar to or mirroring that utilized by the Blue Ridge Interagency Council on Homelessness (BRICH) to review Emergency Solutions Grant applications for funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Ultimately, this is purely in an advisory capacity with the final decision made by Roanoke city council.
With that said, I believe the intent of ARPA funds is to support transformative projects that hold long-term promise and potential for Roanoke and the region. Here are a few things I would consider funding and pursuing further: $3 million should be put toward transitional and affordable housing, $250,000 of which should be allocated to the Roanoke Rescue Mission to rehabilitate property they own at 319 Dale Ave. S.E. for the purpose of creating four transitional apartment-style housing units. Remaining funds in this allocation should be utilized by Total Action for Progress to administer a land bank that would acquire, hold and transfer properties within city boundaries to return any blighted, abandoned, foreclosed or tax-delinquent property back to its most productive use. This money should include the creation of a Community Based Development Organization established with Community Housing Partners for rehabilitation, renovation and new construction so that those properties could be turned into affordable housing as well as transitional housing that would be managed by organizations with experience in that area. Transitional housing is a need in the city. I believe that these blighted, derelict homes provide the key to improving our neighborhoods and transitioning people out of homelessness.
And $500,000 should be put toward subsidies, loan programs and down payment assistance that provide support for people with disabilities and low incomes. Recent comments from Gov. Glenn Youngkin to the Joint Money Committee that “the solution to this problem is not more subsidies or loan programs” foreshadows a risk of losing funding in this area from the General Assembly during the 2023 session.
And $150,000 should be dedicated to Roanoke Area Ministries to complement private funds raised for the relocation project to meet a growing demand for their services. This would give more people experiencing homelessness a place to go during the day that is closer to the Roanoke Rescue Mission. An additional $100,000 should also be considered to help RAM expand offerings in health care and mental health care, including substance use disorder treatment services.
The remaining $1.2 million should be allocated to implement the Continuum of Care Strategic Plan to End Homelessness utilizing a process described in the first part of this answer.
Sanchez-Jones: I believe that we should be looking at additional ways to provide either low or no barrier shelters that will reach a wider number of the homeless population in Roanoke. We should expand drug treatment options for the homeless and find opportunities for job training or job placement for those struggling with addiction and other issues that may have caused or continued their inability to remain in housing. There are several cities that have been working on tiny house village models for transitional housing for the homeless and, while I believe that it would be a good idea, we need to ensure that we are doing what would be best for the neighbors and communities that may be affected by this type of housing.
Tyler: The $5 million should go to a team of people and when I say team, as many as it takes to go to these homeless areas and talk to every homeless person in every area of the city. Create a homeless task force to just deal with the homeless.
Volosin: Outdoor shelters are a newer concept that is being utilized in cities around the country to create transitional housing for the homeless. By creating spaces for these folks to camp, or possibly live in pods/tiny homes, it will reduce the amount of homeless we see camping in neighborhoods, downtown and wooded areas throughout the city. I believe some of the ARPA money should establish an outdoor shelter (or two) to create a space for the homeless to live as an alternative to indoor shelters. There can be many reasons why someone may not want to stay at an indoor shelter and prefer to live outdoors. Along with space for the homeless, outdoor shelters typically include a bathhouse for showering and restrooms, on-site social workers and security. Having social workers is key to identifying the needs of the homeless and getting them the help they need to move from the outdoors into their own space.
I would also like some of the ARPA money to be used to develop a shelter system for the LGBT+ homeless. According to the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, 40% of homeless youth served by agencies identify as LGBT. The Rescue Mission has made strides in reducing the barriers for LGBT folks to use their shelter, but many times our LGBT youth and transgender populations are harder to house. In addition to outdoor shelters, this is the largest gap I see in our current resources for the homeless.
Q: The current strategy to end homelessness is to identify people without housing, offer them a wide menu of services to improve their wellness and opportunity, and pursue every means to place them in housing. It was developed and implemented by a broad coalition representing social services providers, faith-based groups, health care organizations, schools and area local governments. Describe how well this strategy is working and what, in your opinion, would improve it.
Baugess: We have many resources currently in Roanoke that work with the homeless. Roanoke (government) needs to reach out to these organizations and see how local government can be of assistance in their needs. Look how other jurisdictions have dealt with their homeless population, see what has worked and has not worked. We need to evaluate the people to see how we can help them and rehabilitate them and get them on their feet. And, most of all, find them affordable housing and jobs.
Bowers: The current strategy seems to be the right one, but the problem of homelessness is persistent and long term, although I’m told the Roanoke homeless population has decreased. The homeless do seem to be more visible, and I hope we can create a policy to provide for them instead of having these unfortunate folks begging on our street corners. Here are my thoughts:
Regarding the Rescue Mission, and other agencies such as the Salvation Army and RAM House, I’m impressed with the mission’s efforts to assist those who have moved out of the shelter, but still need assistance in finding housing, rent subsidies, food , utility and transportation needs; and the mission’s medical team program that now goes out to the homeless on the street, not just at the shelter, to assist them with psychiatric, medical and substance abuse efforts. This is truly a commendable new effort and worthy goal.
Housing rehab in the city: One city housing inspector reported that there are 90 dilapidated or condemned houses in just one neighborhood of the city. I’d like to know the number across the entire city. Seems to me that reconstruction efforts, aiding financially both homeowners and landlords of vacant property, as well as Habitat for Humanity and Rebuilding Together efforts, would be a good use of funding.
Construction trades job training: If the need is as great as it appears to be to refurbish vacant properties, offering assistance for the homeless and others to learn plumbing, electrical, roofing and construction would provide income for those in need and, hopefully, re-instill in them a positive work ethic to help them improve their means in life.
Cobb: Over the last 10 years, the strategy created by the Blue Ridge Continuum of Care and outlined in the strategic plan created by the Blue Ridge Interagency Council on Homelessness has reduced the total number of persons experiencing homelessness by 60%. This plan is currently being updated with Point in Time Data and new input from the community with the following priority areas:
Community Engagement: Build community awareness and support of our local homeless response system
Coordinated System: Enhance the existing homeless response system to ensure a streamlined process for accessing services and housing supports to reduce duplication and gaps in services
Data & Performance: Use data to guide decision-making, create performance benchmarks, and align resources and services with successful outcomes and proven strategies
Housing Stability: To increase housing stability for low-to moderate income households that are homeless or at-risk of becoming homelessness
Roanoke prioritizes housing unsheltered persons first and providing them with supportive services to sustain their housing. While the latest Point in Time revealed that we are seeing an increase in unsheltered persons and the average age is veering younger, I will work to continue supporting this model as a priority and through funding to address these unique needs in our community.
Hagen: The current strategy does not appear to be working. Our current members of Roanoke City Council have failed to address the specific issues regarding the many homeless encampments throughout the city. These encampments are proof of the ineffectiveness of the current administration’s policies. We need to ensure that these people are able to get the help that they so desperately need while still respecting their dignity and humanity. In that vein, we need to ensure they have access to mental health and addiction treatments and shelter services with as few barriers as possible to make sure that they can become self-sufficient.
Jackson: Wrap around services are essential to the betterment of our neighborhoods and communities at large; however, many of the services and programs aren’t known about, so they aren’t as effective as they could be. I would work to bring those services more into the communities and neighborhoods, where they are needed. That means taking services to the citizens, instead of waiting for citizens to come to the services they don’t know exist.
Keller: As we work with the homeless, we must remember that they, too, are created in the image of God. There is a spiritual void in every human soul — a void that only God can fill. Homelessness doesn’t happen overnight; it’s often a long spiral to the bottom — a slow fade — frequently fueled by drug and alcohol addiction. Allowing homeless “camps” and people begging for money in traffic medians is not helping them. It just delays their receiving the proper care they need. We need to create and enforce public ordinances. We need “tough love.”
McGuire: The homeless and vagrant situation is getting worse, not better. Roanoke City Council took an important step when it banned sleeping and camping on sidewalks. Local agencies stepped up and reduced the qualifications for emergency shelters. Now, we need enforcement. If a homeless person or vagrant repeatedly declines treatment, therapy or training and does not make any effort to improve their situation, then they will have to find another place to live on the streets.
We should crack down on the building owners who allow their vacant buildings to be used as drug dens. We should prosecute those who damage property and assault people. And we should help those suffering from homelessness find their place in the world. We can show grace and mercy toward those who are suffering without sacrificing our city’s safety and security.
Priddy: This strategy is working well, but these organizations need more resources to accomplish their mission. I see a particular need in the area of transitional housing, which is why my funding recommendations lean heavily in support of expanding those options. By combining affordable housing with case management services to meet the needs of unique populations, like LGBTQ, veterans, people with substance use disorder, and the working homeless, transitional housing can bridge the gap for those in crisis so homeslessness is a short yet challenging time in their lives rather than an endless cycle they can never escape no matter how hard they try.
Sanchez-Jones: I fully support the work that the Homeless Assistance Team is doing alongside other community partners such as The Least of These Ministry. There is still a lot of work to be done, and this issue won’t simply be solved overnight, but the work that is being done has shown progress. As a community we also need to understand that when we talk about the homeless or panhandlers that we are still talking about people and they deserve our compassion, just as anyone else who has fallen on hard times. I believe that we can do more to help solve this problem by showing more humanity to those who are suffering and by humanizing this issue, rather than vilifying it.
Tyler: It’s working but I think the task of identifying why they are homeless is not happening. Some have fallen on hard times. And just need a helping hand or a caring hand. We need to reach out to them and ask why are you homeless? Some may have some mental issues that need to be addressed. That would be what I suggest to improve.
Volosin: I think this strategy of wrap around services is what is needed to help the homeless get on a path out of homelessness. Roanoke’s HAT team and other community partners do a great job of working with our current homeless population. I think more funding and social workers can help to increase our capacity. Like I stated in the above question, I think the biggest issues we have are the lack of LGBT-friendly and outdoor shelters.
Do you, a family member or a close friend have any experience with homelessness? What can you share about that and the impact on you?
Baugess: Other people I feel are taking advantage of Roanoke’s generosity. I witnessed a lady in a motorized wheelchair who was on Hershberger Road asking for money. She rode her motorized wheelchair back to a Lowe’s parking lot and walked to her car. Then she got back in her motorized wheelchair and went back out to the street. This type of action needs to stop.
Bowers: Yes. In my role as a local attorney I have dealt indirectly with many unfortunate homeless, substance abusers and mentally challenged persons in our civil, criminal and juvenile and domestic courts.
Currently, I am working with a very nice, intelligent and educated older single gentleman (who will remain anonymous) who unfortunately suffers mental health issues, which seem to be controlled by his medication regimen. He and I have worked together since his release from jail, primarily getting him moved from a day-to-day stay at a local motel to a safe and clean environment at the Rescue Mission. Still to come are the reinstatement of his Social Security check; with the help of the mission, finding him an apartment; assisting him with his food and transportation needs; and reconnecting him with veterans health care services.
Working with this nice guy is a daily reminder of the blessings bestowed on me in my life, and a humble reminder of the plight of others in this world and the need for us to help out the less fortunate.
Cobb: When I was coming out in the late 1990s, I had to leave my employment and was hired by the United Methodist Urban Ministry to be their coordinator of volunteers. During this very vulnerable time in my life, when I could have easily been homeless (and my affordable rent at the time was $325/month for a one-bedroom apartment), I came face to face with the vulnerability of neighbors who were without a place to call home, without access to food, without access to health care. Since that time, I have dedicated much of my life to working with and advocating for persons experiencing homelessness.
Three years after I moved to Roanoke in 2004, I became the executive director of the Roanoke Valley Interfaith Hospitality Network, a network of 30 congregations providing temporary shelter, supportive services and rapid rehousing. I came to know firsthand the stories of individuals and families who through unexpected circumstances (loss of job, debt from medical bills, domestic violence, house fire, etc.) needed a place to call home on their way home. I have witnessed the miraculous work of Roanoke’s community partners who work tirelessly to provide shelter, supportive services and most importantly, friendship in the spirit of unconditional hospitality.
Over the 20 years I’ve lived in Roanoke, I’ve seen the dedicated work of our community make a difference in the lives of unsheltered and vulnerable citizens. I am committed to ensuring that Roanoke continues to be a place where everyone who calls Roanoke home may have a home in which to live and thrive.
Hagen: Yes, a close friend of mine was a single mother and pregnant with her second child when she was homeless. This occurred when I was in college and only found out about her homelessness after the fact. She found that her pathway toward owning a home was with actionable and sustainable goals to help her get back on her feet. It drove home the fact that these individuals are people. I believe that all too often many politicians and elected officials look at homeless individuals as “other” or reduce them to soundbites in order to further political ideologies. I have and always will reject the idea of using another human being in any way that does not respect their individual dignity and humanity.
Jackson: Yes, as a pastor and community leader, I encounter people on a daily basis that are homeless and in need of assistance. We have had individuals camping out around our church campus. We respect them and do our best to assist them by offering to then the services currently provided by the city and private agencies to assist them in a pathway to a better life.
Keller: In my teen and college years, I worked in inner-city ministry. I saw up close the devastating effects of alcohol, drug abuse, and the breakdown of families. This is one of the reasons I don’t drink and have never used illegal drugs.
McGuire: My dear cousin suffered from addiction. In between periods of sobriety, when the dark cloud of addiction found her, the extended family found her safe housing and did their best to find her treatments and help. She died of an overdose and it broke our hearts. I’m thankful she had an extended family to help her find emergency shelter. Many living on our streets don’t have the benefit of a large, loving extended family. These are the people who fall through the cracks and need help the most.
Priddy: I have a close relative who has experienced homelessness and continues to struggle with it. Like many, I have no idea where they are or if they are OK. Their battle with addiction has been a constant barrier to secure permanent supportive housing and despite having received counseling, medications, and multiple rehabs, they have not been able to find stability.
Some might say that this person has made a conscious choice to live this way, but when you understand that they continue to be traumatized from a sexual assault experienced at a young age, it shifts your perspective. I can’t imagine what they have and are still going through to this day. I hope they can receive the services they need in order to heal and obtain secure housing.
Sanchez-Jones: When my family was living in Colorado there was an incident in town that left a family of 18 without shelter due to a fire. We had no idea really who any of these people were but we opened our home to them and helped them get back on their feet after they were left homeless. My husband has also had a family member experience homelessness in New York City.
Both of those experiences, along with the work we did in community development, has left a deep impact on us as we have first hand experience with some of the root causes of homelessness.
Tyler: I had a friend who lost his job, then his house so he went to the streets. He started to get depressed. I saw him and got him some help, got him a job at Kroger, got him to the Rescue Mission and then he got an apartment and started to get on his feet. It’s about just helping someone. I just want to build this great city by helping someone along my way.
Volosin: I interact with LGBT+ folks who are homeless through the Roanoke Diversity Center. We are a resource center and connect people to community resources for housing, health, food and mental health, amongst other things. The folks I work with have shown me that the most important thing for us to recognize is that the homeless are human too. Many times we stigmatize the homeless but, really, it can happen to anyone. It is especially heartbreaking for me when I work with LGBT+ youth that have been kicked out of their home due to their gender identity and/or sexual orientation.