Group: Reserve Alms House fire money for poor

The money Shenandoah County collected in the Alms House fire last year should go to help the poor, some advocates for the homeless say.

Shenandoah County received $676,576 from its insurance provider after a fire destroyed the historic building in April. But the county has not earmarked the money for any specific purposes.

Sharon Hollar, director of the Shenandoah Valley Coalition for Christ, says the county should put some or all of the money toward efforts to help the poor. The Alms House was built at the County Farm and used to aid the poor under a state requirement set in place more than 200 years ago. It was the last such building constructed and used for that purpose.

“Now, I realize it burnt down but that doesn’t relieve them of their duties to help the poor when you have all these churches and individuals breaking their backs to help people,” Hollar said recently.

The proceeds from the insurance claim were remitted to the county’s general fund, County Administrator Mary T. Price said Thursday. The general fund covers a wide array of spending by the county, from administration, public safety and public works to community development and education.

The Board of Supervisors has not appropriated the proceeds for any specific purposes. Whether or not the board decides on a specific use for the money, considered additional revenue in the budget, in next year’s spending plan remains uncertain.

Board Chairman David Ferguson said Wednesday he and Hollar spoke about the matter. Ferguson said he assumes the insurance claim proceeds would stay in the general fund until the board considers making contributions to outside agencies, especially those that work with disadvantaged residents. The board takes up funding for outside agencies during its work on the next fiscal budget in the coming weeks and months.

“If the board sees fit to increase their giving in that arena, surely they have the right to do so,” Ferguson said.

Virginia took control of “glebe” lands, used to help the poor, after the Revolutionary War. The General Assembly eventually passed laws that transferred the care of the poor to the counties, naming them “overseers.” Shenandoah County took over the farm in 1800 and began operating an almshouse on the site. Additions to the almshouse were built over the years.

Hollar says her research shows the county might be required to use the proceeds from the insurance claim to help the poor. A footnote in the county’s application placing the almshouse on the National Register of Historic Places in the early 1990s cites information from “Up from Independence: The Episcopal Church in Virginia,” written by George J. Cleveland and published in 1976. The footnote states that “the Overseers of the Poor were to take possession [of the glebe farm] and either use the glebe for the care of the poor – or sell it and use the proceeds for their care.”

The Shenandoah Alliance for Shelter operated out of the Alms House since the 1990s while the building remained the responsibility of the county. By the time the fire forced the Alliance out and into a new space in Woodstock, the organization had changed its approach to helping the homeless, though it still used part of the building as a shelter.

The Alliance no longer uses shelters to help the homeless. The organization now tries to provide transitional housing for the homeless through a network of landlords and its financial assistance programs. Program Administrator Kerry Keihn said Wednesday the Alliance has served many households after losing its home at the Alms House as it did before the fire.

“The Shenandoah Alliance for Shelter is not interested in using the county’s insurance money to rebuild a shelter since we don’t feel that is the best way to end and prevent local homelessness,” Keihn said. “In our community, the need is always greater than our resources, so if even a portion of that insurance money is allotted to any nonprofit that works with low-income individuals, the money will be put to good use. But I trust that the community and the supervisors will make the decision they feel is best for Shenandoah County.”

The county contributed $40,000 to the Alliance in this year’s budget.

The Shenandoah Valley Coalition for Christ is described as a network of churches, nonprofit organizations, businesses and individuals that work together in the community on various issues. The coalition does not receive contributions from the county, Hollar said.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or