By Alex Bridges
The loss of the historic Alms House earlier this month could spell the end of the traditional homeless shelter in Shenandoah County.
The use of the Alms House as a shelter for homeless people at the County Farm in Maurertown dates back to its construction in 1829. Shenandoah County maintained it as a shelter until the 1990s. By that time it served as a shelter for only a handful of elderly residents.
The Shenandoah Alliance For Shelter carried on the tradition of running the Alms House as a place of refuge for the area's homeless people or families at risk of losing their homes. Ed Provost, a founding director of the Alliance, recalled Friday that the organization knew the storied history of the Alms House when it took over the shelter.
"In our discussions with the county, we said 'look, that's what that building was built for and we can continue to use it that way," Provost said.
The county nearly shut down the Alms House as a shelter in the early 1990s when the couple who ran the facility announced their plans to retire, Provost said.
The Alliance, which had become incorporated in 1990 as a nonprofit organization, expressed to the county an interest in using the south end of the Alms House for its shelter efforts, Provost said. County officials told the Alliance it needed someone to administer the entire space. The parties drafted a contract and the Alliance took over the Alms House as well as care of the people already living at the shelter.
"The county was very, very proud of the fact that they had an almshouse," Provost said. "They were faced with probably having to shut it down but they knew there would be a real outcry from the people, so that's why, when we appeared on the scene, it was good for both of us."
In 2006, a wall in the kitchen to the rear of the main building collapsed. The county repaired the wall but the damage exposed other problems with the building. Estimates put the cost to rehabilitate the entire building at more than $1 million -- a price the county did not want to pay at the time.
Years later, People Inc., a Staunton-based organization that works on low-income housing projects, began working with the Alliance and the county to turn the area of the Alms House not in use into apartments for needy families. The approach followed a shift in dealing with homelessness from emergency shelters to "rapid re-housing." The fire occurred days after county leaders entered into an agreement with the two agencies to move forward with the project.
A new approach to housing the homeless means groups like the Alliance doesn't need a lot of space, if any, to help the needy.
"What Richmond, the state itself is doing, in conjunction with the federal government, they're downplaying these emergency shelters or any kind of shelter and they're encouraging [us] to do what they call 'rapid re-housing' or landlord-based assistance to [move] people into more stable housing," Provost said.
The Alliance has seen success with the new model. While the agency has housed more than a dozen families at the Alms House in the past year, the Alliance has found housing for more than 100 families in the same time frame, Provost noted. The Alliance also didn't have enough room at the Alms House to shelter more families because it only had use of part of the building.
The landlords who provide housing for the Alliance's clients like the arrangement because the organization stays with the families and helps stabilize them, Provost said.
But the new approach also likely means the end of traditional shelters,
"I don't think you'll see another shelter, per se, built anywhere in the state," Provost said.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org