STEPS hopes to cut down on homelessness w/ Israel Hill purchase

Published 7:11 am Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The goal is to provide a way to cut down on homelessness in Farmville and the surrounding area. Earlier this year, we reported how STEPS was looking for land, in order to set up a supportive housing community. Now they have a site in mind, part of the former Israel Hill community. And the group wants the public’s help with ideas on how to develop it. 

First off, before we get into the site, let’s take a minute to explain what supportive housing is. Yes, supportive housing is designed as affordable housing to help get homeless individuals and families off the streets. But it’s a bit more than that. The concept also offers services to help homeless residents get back on their feet. We’re talking about case management, working with individuals to help them deal with things like appointment scheduling and planning ahead for rent payments. It also involves job and life skills training, so that residents understand things like time management, cooking and budgeting. 

Now as for where that’s going to happen, STEPS is focused on property just off Layne Street in Farmville. The purchase will include 48 acres on the west side of town. STEPS will buy the property. Then its partner, Virginia Supportive Housing (VSH) plans to build apartments on a portion of the land. 

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“It is a bold step, but one that is desperately needed to meet the regional need,” STEPS Vice President of Housing Shawn Rozier said. 

A need for housing 

And there is a need. From July 1, 2023 until now, STEPS has helped 75 households, including a total of 173 total people from the six counties it serves. Those six counties are Amelia, Buckingham, Cumberland, Lunenburg, Nottoway and Prince Edward.

Part of it is simply that some residents can’t afford rent. Others had to get out of an unsafe situation. They’re not alone. A recently-published Harvard study shows that nearly half of all Virginia renters are cost burdened and cannot afford their rent – similar to the national average. The country also lost 2.1 million contract units under $600 since 2012. In rural Virginia, there was an average of 44 units per 100 low-income renters in 2023.

The heavy cost is reflected in the rate of homelessness. In 2023, homelessness was at an all-time high nationwide. Last year, the state also experienced the highest number of unsheltered people since 2015.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development released data in December showing that 6,761 Virginians were homeless in 2023, compared to 6,529 in 2022, 5,812 in 2021, and 5,957 in 2020.

But there’s one problem. This region doesn’t have a homeless shelter or any supportive housing, so STEPS has to either find housing outside the region or pay to put people up in hotels and motels as a short-term solution. They believe this new project is a better option. 

Honoring Israel Hill

Now here’s where the public comes in. STEPS has scheduled a meeting at the Moton Museum for Tuesday, June 4, beginning at 6 p.m. Officials from the group said they want to hear from residents about how to use the remaining part of the 48 acres and honor its history. That piece of land off Layne Street was part of Israel Hill. 

Israel Hill remains a unique part of Prince Edward County’s history. It was settled in 1810 by 90 former slaves who had been granted both their freedom and 350 acres. According to William and Mary professor Melvin Ely, who wrote the book “Israel on the Appomattox” about the subject, the slaves had been freed by Judith Randolph, after the death of her husband, Richard Randolph. Richard, Ely wrote, had ordered the slaves be freed in his will. His will was written in 1795 and even though Richard died in 1796, Judith took more than a decade to free the slaves and give the land. 

But once Israel Hill got started, it grew quickly. Ely writes that its residents established farms near the banks of the Appomattox River and became entrepreneurs in the area. 

Free blacks and whites did business with one another, sued each other, worked side by side for equal wages, joined forces to found a Baptist congregation, moved west together, and occasionally settled down as man and wife,” Ely writes in his book of Israel Hill. 

And it was a community with staying power. Israel Hill remained a community into the early 20th century, according to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. You can see a historical marker honoring the community at the intersection of West Third Street and Layne Street in Farmville.  

How to honor history 

But what’s the best way to honor the history of Israel Hill, while also providing supportive housing on the property? STEPS is working with the Moton Museum staff to develop a plan, but they want to hear any ideas people have, as nothing is set in stone yet. 

We are in the early stages of planning regarding how to honor the history of Israel Hill, which is a big reason for this meeting,” Rozier said. “Input is needed on how to do this, and we have put forward a suggestion or two to get everyone thinking and talking. We know that we want to do something to honor their achievements.”

Already, the group is looking into a variety of options. 

This is a 48 acre property, so we believe there will be space for the history and the housing,” Rozier said. “One possibility is that the roads and specific housing can be named after members of the Israel Hill community.” 

He added that STEPS will also be initiating an archeology study in the near future, to see if things from Israel Hill could be found. 

“The results of that (study) will be shared with the Moton (Museum) and available to the descendant community,” Rozier said. 

Moton Museum Executive Director Cainan Townsend said he and his staff are happy to host the June 4 meeting. He also encouraged people to show up and be part of the conversation. 

“We know our community cares deeply about honoring the history of Israel Hill, and we acknowledge STEPS’ strong commitment to assisting those struggling to overcome barriers like homelessness,” Townsend said in a statement. “This gathering provides a crucial opportunity for descendants and the wider community to offer their insights on how best to recognize these remarkable achievements and address current challenges such as homelessness.” 

That meeting will take place June 4 at 6 p.m. at the Moton Museum.