Vibrant economy, low jobless rate not keeping homeless rate down
For the second year in a row, the booming economy and lower unemployment rate have failed to help lower the number of homeless in the Shenandoah Valley.
The number of homeless students in public schools has jumped from 463 to 588, and they are not included in the one-day annual Continuum of Care (CoC) survey for Western Virginia.
Shenandoah County, for example, had a 61 percent increase in public school students deemed homeless, exceeded only by Frederick County public schools, which had a 68 percent increase in homeless students in 2018 compared to 2017.
“There has been an influx of migrants coming into the area,” said Michael Wong, executive director of the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority who coordinates the Continuum of Care survey.
Area schools have been heavily impacted by families with school-age children moving to this area after weather disasters, say officials.
The survey found Frederick County homeless students climbed from 125 to 210 in January and today there are 270 public school students in that county deemed homeless, said Tyler Thompson, the continuum’s school liaison for Frederick County.
The increase, opined Thompson, is due to improved ability to identify the homeless, not enough affordable housing in the area and severe weather last fall.
“Many have relocated here from Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas and Georgia that we have been told about,” said Tyler.
Deborah Litten, who provides liaison from Shenandoah County public schools, echoed that 13 homeless students were added this year from Puerto Rico as the school’s homeless increased from 33 to 53.
Only Warren and Clarke counties showed a combined decline in homeless students from 50 to 44.
The federally regulated survey only included homeless adults and children living in shelters plus unsheltered homeless adults.
HUD describes the “homeless” as those living in shelters, in outdoor camps or living in a vehicle.
Hospital patients, those staying in hotels, incarcerated or “couch surfing” with relatives, friends, or co-workers for a brief period are not considered homeless by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). They may be counted as homeless in public schools using U.S. Department of Education criteria.
Overall, the HUD survey showed only Winchester had a decline from 114 homeless last year to 98.
Front Royal, Woodstock and the counties of Shenandoah, Warren, Clarke and Page increased their combined homeless count from 41 to 57. Rockingham County and Harrisonburg jumped from 127 to 149 homeless.
“Maybe we aren’t doing a good enough job,” said Wong, “We are following processes and gathering statistics.”
He has spent 25 years dealing with issues involving the homeless and saw the total homeless in the continuum increase from 280 to 304, and that does not include homeless students due to different criteria for identification.
“Helping the homeless has always been a challenge,” he said.
The continuum’s goal is to find a permanent home for a homeless person within 80 days. From July 1, 2017, to Feb. 28, the time was 92 days on average.
As Wong sees it, “The affordability of housing is one of the big reasons” for the increasing homeless population at a time when area unemployment rates are hovering at 4 percent or lower.
“The economy isn’t improving minimum wages and many homeless who are working can’t make enough money to survive with housing costs increasing,” Wong said.
The improving economy also often raises other expenses like health, education and transportation.
Virginia is among the top five states nationally in evictions, Wong said. “In my dream world, and if we had all the resources, we would have affordable housing for the homeless. I think that is the only way I see today to solve the problem.
“If you don’t have stable housing, employment, transportation, education, health – they are not easily available,” he added.
The continuum has asked for a 10 percent increase in the legislature’s Virginia Homeless Solution grant to help seek some new solutions.
“We need to expand our outreach and contact these individuals in the chronically homeless population,” he said. “We need to develop relationships and build trust so we can get them into helpful public services to get them off the streets,” he said. “Of course, it is easier to say than do.”
“It’s frustrating,” he lamented. “But if we can help one person at a time, I can sleep at night.”