Can We Solve the Problem of Homelessness?

Apr 22, 2015

Credit Kara Lofton

In the last installment of our series on homelessness, WMRA’s Kara Lofton talks to local experts about how solving the housing crisis could be the answer to eliminating homelessness in Virginia.

If you ask local experts, “Why is there homelessness in Virginia?” their answers are pretty consistent:

MICHAEL WONG: The answer is, of course, housing -- affordable housing.

STEPHEN HITCHCOCK: Homelessness is a housing crisis.

SUSAN RICHARDSON: The cost of housing is incredibly high.

KAKI DIMOCK: Housing is the solution to homelessness.

As part of this series, I spoke to six individuals who are working with homeless populations in Virginia, and at one point or another, they all talked about the lack of affordable housing in this area. Affordable housing means housing that is no more than 30% of one’s income.

Kaki Dimock is the executive director at the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless in Charlottesville. She said in 2010, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness released the Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness. The plan includes ending chronic homelessness, especially for veterans, ending homelessness in general and ending homelessness in families and youth. She described chronic homelessness as:  

DIMOCK: An extended period time on the street or multiple episodes of homelessness plus a documented disability and that’s a disability that can be behavioral, mental health, substance abuse or physical disability.

After the mandate, the Interagency Council on Homelessness began to identify what works to end homelessness and what doesn’t work. What they found is that providing housing is really effective - especially for those who have the most need. Local agencies began to

DIMOCK: Use whatever resource you have to address the person who has the highest need, which is both the compassionate thing, but also the economic thing because those people who have the highest needs are costing the community the most.

Locally, the economic cost of keeping someone homeless is between $22,000 and $26,000 a year. That cost includes emergency room visits and mental health services. The cost of permanent support of housing drops that number to slightly more than $10,000, even if housing is the sole intervention the community provides. 

DIMOCK: Once people get stability housed, things start to look different, their horizons change, they can look beyond tomorrow or the next meal, and they start to imagine their lives differently, they get connected to mainstream resources, they consider jobs, they drink less, they have fewer medical needs, they have fewer mental health crises.

Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority director Michael Wong said similar programs are being piloted under the Harrisonburg Continuum of Care initiatives and are very successful. As mentioned earlier in this series, since 2012, Harrisonburg has experienced a 22% reduction in the number of folks in shelters.

WONGA number of the individuals in the shelters are working, and they are working almost full-time, but they aren’t able to pay the deposit or their utility costs, which all adds to the challenge of being able to move into a housing and then maintain that housing.

Susan Richardson is the director of Valley Mission in Staunton. Like Wong and Dimock, she spoke at length about the challenges of living in a community with little affordable housing.

RICHARDSON: If a person is on disability and say for instance they are earning $800 a month if their apartment is $600 and it does not include utilities, then that leaves them $200 to do utilities and for insurance or food and clothing, I mean, it’s pretty much impossible.

She then began to talk about the lack of a livable wage. The minimum wage in Virginia is currently $7.25 an hour. In a four-week month, that means that a minimum wage worker will earn $1,160. Since affordable housing is defined as taking up no more than 30% of one’s income, that person would need to find an apartment that costs them a maximum of $348 a month.

However, Harrisonburg, Staunton and Charlottesville live in a corridor that is heavily dominated by two major state universities that drive up housing costs in their respective locales: James Madison University and the University of Virginia. A one or two bedroom apartment in this corridor that costs less than $348 is an almost impossible find.

Dimock weighs in:

DIMOCK: Instead of trying to fix everyone, we are going to give them the smallest amount necessary for them to be able to solve the problem on their own. That assumes two things: one that we’ll be flexible and responsive to people’s needs, but also, and this is radical, it assumes that people will take care of themselves if you give them what they need to be out of crisis, that they have both the coping skills and the social network and those kind of things that they can tap into to solve whatever else is going on. And that is a radical idea of treating homeless people like humans.