Houseless people in Richmond were kicked out of their encampment Wednesday. Richmond's houseless population facing increased harassment from the city.
Houseless people in Richmond were kicked out of their encampment Wednesday.

People Inc. needs more money to support houseless residents in Southwest Virginia.

ABINGDON – People, Inc. President and CEO Rob Goldsmith didn’t mince words when he opened the organization’s emergency press conference on Monday morning. “What we need to talk about today is an impending crisis in Southwest Virginia,” Goldsmith said. 

People, Inc. is a community action organization based in Abingdon, which serves several counties throughout the region. The agency provides services including Head Start classes, business development and loan funds, and workforce development programs. Since last spring, however, People, Inc. has rapidly and significantly scaled up its homelessness prevention and rapid rehousing efforts.

In a typical year, the organization spends about $10,000 covering hotel fees for unhoused folks as they transition into more permanent housing, Goldsmith explained. Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck Virginia, People, Inc. has shelled out more than $300,000 for the same purpose. Now, even with huge windfalls from the federal CARES Act, the agency is out of money. 

“Right now we have zero money available for homeless services,” Goldsmith said during the press conference. The agency needs a solution, or at least a short-term funding stream, to prevent tossing 70 client families out on the street. 

Pandemic Exacerbated Problems 

Southwest Virginia’s always had a homeless problem, Goldsmith explained, although it tends to fly under the radar. The experience of unhoused folks in the region is one of perpetual couch-surfing, rather than sleeping on the sidewalk. This means surveys of homelessness tend to undercount those struggling in the region, because the surveys rely on headcounts at area shelters and outdoors.

That changed during the pandemic, Goldsmith said. “During the pandemic, the situation got much worse than it had ever been before,” he said. “We had a large number of households who were literally homeless” and on the street. 

Even under the best circumstances, Southwest Virginia lacks the infrastructure to support unhoused folks. Shelters are few and far between and have limited capacity. Distancing requirements further limited the number of available shelter beds during the pandemic. Many shelters slashed their capacity by half, Goldsmith said. Furthermore, shelters required a negative COVID test before admitting families. But tests were difficult to access.

People, Inc. has worked with other area organizations and churches to keep unhoused folks fed and safe during the day—but overnight stays are difficult to coordinate. 

Ironically, even the eviction moratorium and rent relief programs, which were implemented to support people struggling financially during the pandemic, caused problems. Those measures, explained People, Inc. Vice President & Chief Operating Officer Angie Groseclose, “caused this problem to be a little worse than it might have been.” Why? They’ve made the availability of low-income, permanent housing relatively limited—meaning there’s nowhere but hotels for unhoused folks to go.

RELATED: CVS Joins Virginia’s Vaccine Effort, But What Does That Mean?

Lack of Permanent Housing Options

Helping unhoused folks transition to permanent, sustainable living situations is a big part of the work People, Inc. normally does. This approach, called “rapid rehousing,” is part of a larger “housing first” philosophy. Which is to say, the solution to homelessness is simply housing, and people often need support to access that housing. 

People, Inc. has continued that work during the pandemic, but it’s been tough. Since the pandemic began, the organization has served 225 clients, Director of Housing Services Kyle Sensabaugh said. The agency has successfully connected 30-40 families with permanent housing. But it’s a process that can take up to a year to complete. 

In rural Virginia, rapid rehousing efforts face several obstacles. According to a 2016 report from Housing Virginia, rural areas of the state face higher rates of unemployment and poverty than urban areas. 

Southwest Virginia also has a high home vacancy rate, meaning up to one out of every 10 houses is empty for most or all of the year—but is not listed for sale. Rental can be a useful stepping-stone to home ownership, but in Southwest Virginia, affordable rental properties are sparse, too.

Unhoused Folks Need More Stability

People, Inc.’s clients haven’t enjoyed a moment of certainty since the pandemic began, Sensabaugh said. From the beginning, the organization was transparent about the fact that motel accommodations were likely a short-term and stopgap solution. As the agency’s funds quickly depleted, Sensabaugh prepared the 70 families for imminent eviction. According to Sensabaugh, the agency spends about $40,000 per week to shelter the families. That’s taking into account that the area’s hotels, which have seen dramatic declines in revenue due to the pandemic, have offered People, Inc. highly discounted stay rates.

People Inc. Find Short-Term Solution

People, Inc. President Rob Goldsmith temporarily left Monday’s virtual press conference to take a call. When he returned, he announced that the organization had secured temporary funding to keep the clients in their hotel rooms for the time being. But the situation has been a roller coaster, Goldsmith said, and “I’m not sure that up and down ride is going to be over.” 

According to Public Information Officer Rachel Fogg, the funding came from the federal government and funneled through the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. “DHCD assured Rob that no one would be displaced today, and they have a meeting on (Feb. 17) to flesh out the details. Right now, the specific funding amount is unknown.” People, Inc. estimates it will need $300,000 in additional funding to continue its work through June, the end of the fiscal year.

Congressman Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), who represents Southwest Virginia at the federal level, said his office has reached out to offer support. “People, Inc. provides a variety of valuable services in several Ninth District jurisdictions, and its work is a great asset to the region,” Griffith said. “We first learned of this specific problem from the…press conference today. My office is taking a look at how the problems discussed in today’s press conference can be addressed at the federal level.”

In the meantime, individuals can help support People, Inc.’s work by calling (276) 623-9000 to volunteer or by donating online

Ashley Spinks Dugan is a freelancer for Dogwood. You can reach her at info@vadogwood.com.