Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Myth of the Homeless Magnet

Recently, both in our local blogosphere (see, for example, here) and at last Monday's City Council meeting, some very good questions have been raised about the geographical origins of Charlottesville's homeless population. Allegations have been made that many of the people on our streets migrated here from somewhere else to take advantage of our services -- i.e., that Charlottesville has become something of a "magnet" for the homeless. This suspicion is only reenforced by comments like the following, from the Dec. 7, 2006 edition of The Hook:

According to several homeless residents, Charlottesville is a "mecca" thanks to the resources available to the homeless including the Salvation Army, Region Ten, and churches that offer daily lunches. "You can eat three squares here every day if you choose," says a self-described homeless man sitting in downtown's Lee Park, who asks that his name not be used. "There's no other place I know in Virginia like this."

And it wasn't but a few years ago that a prominent Charlottesville city official was quoted as saying, "The answer to our homeless problem is simple: Find out where all these homeless people came from, and send them back there."

Well, guess what? It's actually not that simple. Because, you see, the vast majority of homeless people in our community are from our community.

Two weeks ago, the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless conducted its annual census of our area's homeless population. In addition to fanning out to all the known homeless camps in the area to try and get a 'homeless head count,' TJACH representatives conducted surveys of 200+ people eating in local soup kitchens or staying in local shelters. Survey responses showed that a full 62% of our homeless people are originally from Charlottesville or the five surrounding counties. Of the remaining 38% of those surveyed, many of them have been living in our community for years. 82% of our homeless residents are originally from the state of Virginia.

At PACEM, we can count on two hands (out of the 150+ homeless people we've sheltered so far this winter) the number of people who were homeless when they moved to this area, and that includes a number of unfortunate souls who landed on our streets straight from prison or a mental institution. In other words, almost all of our PACEM guests were living here in our community at the time they became homeless.

I was curious to compare the numbers from TJACH's homeless census and from our PACEM knowledge base with the transient rate of our population as a whole. While I couldn't find precise data on the numbers of "come heres" vs. "from heres" for our general population, I did discover that only 53.5% of City residents, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, were even born in the state of Virginia. Albemarle's population is even less 'rooted' -- only 49.5% of its residents are from Virginia. With the large influx of new residents to Charlottesville and Albemarle since 2000, those percentages will surely be even lower at the time of the next Census.

(Another comparative statistic: of the 5 members of Charlottesville City Council, precisely 0% of us are originally from Charlottesville or the five surrounding counties. We're all "come-heres.")

Ironically, what these numbers show is that the homeless population of our community is actually substantially more rooted in our community than our area's population as a whole. That probably bears repeating: the homeless population of our community is substantially more rooted in our community than our area's population as a whole.

Homelessness in Charlottesville, as it turns out, is primarily a home-grown phenomenon.

The implications of this fact are profound. Solving our homeless problem suddenly isn't so simple as buying everyone a bus ticket back to their hometown. We ARE their hometown. They are our neighbors. They are we.

So, are we witnessing a large migration of homeless people from other parts of Virginia or other parts of the country to Charlottesville -- people choosing to pick up and move to a totally unfamiliar city, with no friends or family connections here, because they can get some free food and a cot to sleep on in a church basement for a few months? Frankly, not only does the data not support the myth of Charlottesville as a homeless magnet, but neither do the realities of human nature. It may be uncomfortable for us to admit, but we've got a problem on our hands that's largely of our own making. The good news is, solutions to this problem are within our grasp.


Karen Waters said...

Dave, you are right on target with this one. In the last six months, I have personally helped two homeless people buy bus tickets out of town, and they were more than happy to go. One of them told me, "I can tell this is no place for a black man with a record." While we are at it, can we please also debunk the myth that our extremely hospitable service providers perpetuate our underclass by making it easy for folks from Buckingham or the surrounding counties to come here and take advantage of our huge safety net??? Here are just a couple of realities about being poor in Charlottesville. 1) in order to qualify for emergency assistance, most if not all of our providers require you have a BALANCED BUDGET. This means, you must have enough income to meet your monthly expenses, in which case you would likely not need help. 2) to qualify for low income housing, you need GOOD CREDIT. If your inability to afford market rate rent has caused you to fall behind, or you are not in good standing with your current landlord, you might as well head straight to PACEM or the Salvation Army, because you are on your way to homelessness. Whether you are from Buckingham or good old CVILLE, if your rent is not paid up, you can't qualify for a place with lower rent, even if you meet the income requirements. I agree the solution to our homeless problem is within reach, and although it may be more difficult than necessary, we will get there, especially for those who can be 'excused' due to mental or other disabilities. But for run of the mill, down on their luck, underemployed and miseducated single moms and/or ex-cons, more often than not, the "solution" seems to be if you don't build it, they will go away.

DaveNorris said...

Amen Karen!!

lani said...

i was wondering what your take is on the homeless campus thats in Phoenix? San Antonio is aiming at building our own version of one here. we had people travel to Phoenix to check out their set up.

Lonnie said...

Given that mental illness, and the inability of the state institutions to do anything, is a big part of this problem, perhaps intentional communities could be part of the answer?

Locally, communities like Innisfree Village have helped provide homes for people with mental disabilities, and provide an alternative to the state institution system. Best of all, when one looks at the final price tag, it costs less to help someone be part of a loving and functional community than it does to put them in an institution. Even though Innisfree works exclusively with people with developmental disabilities instead of mental illness, it does provide a good model that could be used. In fact, I believe their is another life-sharing organization working with mental illness in Charlottesville (but I can't remember the name).

Unfortunately, intentional communities are being burdened with an overwhelming number of rules and regulations that hinder their ability to function optimally. That's why Innisfree Village is pushing for an additional status for Life- Sharing communities. You can see the relevant bill at Richmond Sunlight. If this bill, passes, then perhaps it could provide yet another local tool that could be used to combat homelessness.