Letter: We need to work with STEPS

Published 12:00 pm Wednesday, July 10, 2024

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Dear Editor,

I ask one thing of you and all other readers. Before reading farther, please take 60 seconds to draw a mental image of a homeless person and imagine that person’s history.

Two years ago, I would have imagined a hollow-eyed, chronic derelict panhandling the streets of San Francisco or Richmond to score another shot of heroin or cheap whiskey. And I would have been right in thousands of cases. But it is a documentable fact that homelessness in our region of rural Virginia looks radically different.

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STEPS, the agency responsible for addressing homelessness in the counties of Amelia, Buckingham, Cumberland, Lunenburg, Nottoway and Prince Edward, is required to provide annual demographic reports to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. These reports reflect a very different picture from that imagined above.

Fifty percent of all homeless households included children and in the emergency shelter and rapid rehousing programs, 50% of the individuals served were children, most under 12. The national figure for homeless households with children is 30%.

Women and girls were the majority in all programs. This contrasts with national statistics in which 70% are men.

Subpopulations in the sheltering program include victims of domestic violence: 7%; veterans: 5%; the elderly: 6%; mentally disabled 4%; and physically disabled 8%.

Most cases of homelessness last less than six months. Locally the chronically homeless constitute only 2%. Nationally about 20% of the homeless are chronic.

As documented above, homelessness in our area, like most rural homelessness, involves a very different population than the chronic homelessness plaguing urban areas. Rural homelessness also tends to be much less visible than urban. It is often so hidden, in fact, that many are unaware of it or deny that it exists. But STEPS figures prove that it does.

During 2022-2023, STEPS placed 193 individuals in temporary shelter through Department of Housing and Centra Health Community Benefit Grant funds. The Prevention Program assisted 43 households including 53 children to stay in their current housing and Rapid Rehousing placed 21 households with 33 children in new housing.

While homelessness in our rural area is less visible, less chronic, more family oriented, and more transitory, it is real, and it is a social and moral problem that our region needs to deal with. Individuals and families who have lost their housing, whether through disability, family conflict, job loss, bad decisions, debt, or illness, deserve shelter and support to stabilize their lives.

Under the leadership of Sharon Harrup and Shawn Rozier, STEPS has made an ambitious commitment to meet this responsibility. They deserve our thanks and our full support.

Ellery Sedgwick

Chair, Local Planning Group

Virginia Continuum of Care