Williamsburg's Homeless & Indigent

P.O. Box 366, Lightfoot, VA 23090
Office: 757-561-3255
"Assisting people in re-gaining hope and a better way of life."

Monday, October 04, 2004

A report I was asked to do to help United Way with their count on homelessness

It has been a year and several months since my last counting of the homeless in Williamsburg who are living on the streets, in the woods, in motels, and with family or friends. Last year there were approximately 40 individuals/families living in the woods or in their cars. Over 200 people were calling motel rooms their homes and 400+ people/families living with friends or families. These figures have changed drastically since then. I want to address each aspect of homelessness, the increase in numbers, and the systemic reasons for the increase. None of the reasons is more responsible for the increase than another excepting the lack of affordable housing, poor credit, and pay wages not increasing with the cost of living, which are the main reasons for homelessness in Williamsburg. Some reasons, you will notice, cross over from group to group.

Currently, there are about 70-80 people living on the streets, in the woods, or in their vehicles. On some occasions, members of this population stay in a motel for a week: but for the most-part, they are in the woods throughout James City County, Upper York and the City of Williamsburg. There are several reasons for this increase in my numbers.

Last year I was unaware of a group that lives as a family in one area of the woods in our community. This group is comprised of 20 people and has survived for years in their location. This population is hard to reach because of their tight-knit relationship and innate distrust of outsiders and their intentions: but we are gradually building trust with them.
Another increase has been seen in the population due to the increase of people being released from incarceration with nowhere to go. Although Katie Green, heads up a program that houses people for a week when they are released, funding is low, and a week is not nearly enough time to find an apartment, let alone the money for a deposit and first month‘s rent. Many of the clients were not homeless prior to their incarceration, but either lost their home or family ties were severed while in jail. I would like to point out that not all of the people who are being released were incarcerated for violent or reprehensible crimes, but for crimes as minor as driving infractions.
Shelter/transitional programs in our area are another factor affecting the increase of numbers. Each program has its set limitation of days one is allowed to stay. Although many of the programs will provide a short extension in exceptional situations, it is rarely enough time for the client to secure a place to live. This is especially evident in the domestic violence programs. The client does not want or can not go back to the abuser. With the lack of affordable housing in our area, some, after 45 days, are put onto the streets (very few are clients with children, but are typically single women). Another area that adds to the problem is the short-term drug/alcohol treatment transitional programs. Many potential landlords are now questioning whether a person has a problem (or past problem) with drinking or drugs. Even if a person has gone through treatment, the chances of being able to rent are dwindling, and many are finding themselves back out on the street in the same environment from which they were seeking to escape.
Because the local government refuses to recognize the homeless problem and thus to legitimize any long-term 24 hour shelter in our area, people on the street have nowhere to go. It is vital for a shelter to be a 24 hour facility for these reasons:
Homelessness is more about not having hope than about not having a roof over one‘s head,
One must spend ample quality time with a client to engender trust and hope,
Many clients have either lost their families (physically or emotionally) or have never known their families (adoption, foster homes, etc.) and desire a family environment
A very few people are chronically homeless by choice due to addictions (fewer than 15 people). No 24-hour shelter or rehab facility would provide a solution for this group of homeless until they bottom out and become ready to overcome their addictions.

The other aspect of homelessness that has grown is the number of people who are living in motels. No longer can the homeless of Williamsburg call weekly motels “home” due to the destruction or closing of motels such as Carolyn Court, Twilight Motel, and Southern Inn. This increase is not as devastating as that of people on the street, but it has surpassed 300. Many of the motels that formerly did not rent weekly, other than to tourists, have now begun to pick up the increase from others’ closing. The average weekly rate is between $250-350/week during tourist-season and used to drop as low as $116/week during off-season months. We have yet to see how low the rates will go now that the cheaper hotels have closed.

By contrast to the street-bound above, many people with children or families, (who have at least one person working) often can afford the high cost of the weekly motels but are on waiting lists for affordable housing, while others of this population simply do not qualify for a secure place to live due to poor credit.
Hurricane Isabel also became a factor in this group of numbers. Many people who are in this group would be considered “temporarily homeless.” Last year after Hurricane Isabel raced through our area, several people (not from Williamsburg) moved into the motels while helping with the clean-up.
Another form of “temporarily homeless” living in the motels is comprised of people being transferred to Williamsburg and/or moving here for employment or a more affordable area to live, such as from DC, NY, and NJ. Many move here to only find that homes or apartments for rent are few and while waiting, place their belongings in storage and move their families into motel rooms. So far, the average wait is longer than 6 months.

The largest group of homeless that has increased over the past year is made up of people/families that are currently living with friends or family members. This group has grown to over 500 people and is also the hardest of which to get an accurate count. This group also has the most diverse reasons for its increase.

One of the largest increases in the past year is the Latino population in Williamsburg. As individuals or small families, most can not afford a place to live, but as a group, with their money combined (sometimes more than 6 people) they will reside in a small 2-3 bedroom apartment. This is also seen in the increase of our Russian and Polish population as well.
Many private landlords have opted to not rent under Section 8 or HUD which has forced several tenants to combine family units into a single dwelling.
Some, who have been released from jail or have moved from transitional shelter programs, have been able to reside temporarily with family members or friends until they can secure a more permanent place to live (the average wait time here, again, is up to 6 months or even longer).
The increase in the cost-of-living, along with stagnant pay wages, has also forced families and/or couples to rent out rooms to people needing a place to stay in order to be able to afford to keep their residence. This “kills two birds with one stone” because it prevents homelessness of the primary family while getting a person/family off the street. But, though it prevents homelessness, it is a solution that is forced upon them by the very causes of homelessness. So, it should not be deemed as a true solution, but rather as a band-aid.
Another increase in this group is among the ‘young adults’ in conjunction with family-values’ decreasing (one can even say, a lack of spiritual values). This is most evident in the increase of teen-age or un-wed mothers who have been put out by their families. Although I have not seen many, I have known of 5 cases in the past year.
Although Williamsburg’s medical community has grown exponentially, the cost of medical treatment has also grown. The lack of insurance for the poor has contributed mightily to the rise in homelessness. For example, there are several cases of which I am aware in which the people desperately need to be in an assisted-care facility, yet cannot qualify for or afford entrance. This forces the person to live with others, in order to afford mediocre care and places tremendous strain on the host family. I have worked with such clients and they have spanned 38 - 62 years of age.

Although there is no immediate solution to homelessness, there is a long-term solution: hope and trust. The question is: How do we create enough hope and trust to effect a cure?

First and foremost, we must befriend the person in need. This means spending quality time with people. A sincere desire to help does not mean you sincerely desire to be a friend.
It is also important to share our faith in God with them. Loss of hope goes hand-in-hand with a loss of faith. Without faith in God (a belief in being responsible to “a higher being“), many people begin to live like animals: merely surviving, hand-to-mouth. Survival is not equivalent to really living.
Without hope, one’s innate trust in humanity falls by the wayside. Along with trust, social skills often fall away: Rudeness is a natural defense against what may be deemed as an intrusion. Many homeless people need to regain social and work skills in order to make a transition “back into society.” These skills can only be regained through consistent exposure to a proper example.

The points listed above ‘must needs’ be coupled with effective means of addressing the physical needs that accompany homelessness: housing, health care, food, etc. Whereas I am not a proponent of massive governmental intervention, it is necessary for the government to be involved in certain key areas. In order for this to happen, however, we must begin by:

Publicly recognizing (read, openly admit) that there is a homeless problem that needs to be addressed, not covered up.
And a more realistic answer needs to be found for the question “What is affordable?” In a community that technically does not have a middle-class, we must redefine the term “affordable.” Questions such as “Whose pay wage is measured?” “What neighborhood or district is considered standard?” and “What will be the median of standards set for those who are considered homeless and those who are indigent?”

But, even more so, it is important for there to be a conglomeration of people who come together in order to decrease these numbers. This means for all to work together, not just a the government but health care facilities, mental health agencies, educational agencies, churches, faith-based programs, individuals within the community and other providers. It should not be controlled by just one agency. No one group has the time, resources, or funding to fully over-see this effort.

Just as a side note, I would like to include some of what God has accomplished through our being in this ministry. In the past 19 months, we have placed 14 people/families into homes (they had been living on the street for over a year); eleven people that we have become friends with have accepted Christ and dedicated their lives to the Lord over this time; in just the past 8 weeks, the food ministry has increased from 350 lbs. to 4000 lbs. per week, which has allowed people who are in need of food to have the extra money to address other needs.

Basically, as a community, we have to consider that, when we give up on a person/family or sector of society, we also give up on ourselves as a whole. We as a society must realize that at any given time, any one of us could be in a situation in which we need help. So few of us recognize this. And so many say, “That would or could never happen to me!” or, “I would never do that or be like that!” But the truth were told (no matter how much money we have, no matter what type of job we have, no matter how perfect we think we are), none of us is guaranteed the security of a house, let alone a home. Economy, values, health, and even weather patterns change and so do we as we respond to these changes. Think about it: If we don’t help those who are in need now, who will be there later to help us if we are in need? If we give up on them, why shouldn’t they give up on us? The focus shouldn’t be limited in scope to ameliorating the immediate problem only: the focus should be to set solutions in motion that will answer current needs and head off future problems as well.


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