Searching for a home in Hanover
Agencies say homelessness is under-reported locally
Every time Roslyn turns the key to her Hanover townhome, she stops, appreciates each groove, and opens the door.
This is still fairly new for her, because a little over a year ago Roslyn, a Richmond area native, did not have a steady roof over her head.
For some time, she was homeless — trying to find a place to sleep for her and her son. Roslyn made sure her young boy stayed with a friend or relative. But, at times, Roslyn’s car became her home.
“Sometimes I cry tears of joy. Sometimes I smile, I just go on,” Roslyn said.
She is not the only one who has been in this situation.
Roslyn is one of several individuals who have struggled to find a consistent and affordable place to live in Hanover County.
Homelessness is typically seen as an urban problem. Locally, the homeless population is there but may not be as obvious. Sometimes people will sleep in the woods, their cars or even in motels, said Karen Willis, director of Ashland Community Outreach, who works directly with many of those individuals each week.
Although data are recorded each year by organizations like Homeward, with the goal to prevent homelessness in greater Richmond, the county’s entire population may not always be accounted for.
“As a community, we have long since overlooked our homeless population,” said Sheree Hedrick, executive director of Hanover Safe Place.
The low income population is also visible within Hanover schools where 15.6 percent of all students, including those in pre-kindergarten to high school, are eligible for free or reduced cost lunch, according to the most recent data from the school division.
Hedrick added that there is not a thorough effort to seek and “really understand [it].”
Willis said the reports that do try to capture that population show small numbers for Hanover because not everyone is accounted for, including those who are living in motel rooms paid for by local churches or groups. She added that those in motels are usually not discovered until churches can no longer pay for lodging and contact ACO or Hanover Safe Place for assistance.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines someone as being homeless if they are “living in a place not fit for human habitation, a shelter, [or] a victim of domestic violence.” HUD’s definition also includes individuals who are staying in lodging paid for by churches and other organizations.
Hanover Safe Place and Ashland Community Outreach are two Hanover-based organizations that received funding to help the homeless for the 2013-2014 fiscal year. Under HUD’s definition of homeless, organizations like those previously mentioned can apply for federal funding, or an emergency solutions grant from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development through a model called Rapid Re-housing.
Roslyn was one of 38 who received assistance from both ACO and HSP last year. After getting laid off from her job as a secretary at a hospital, Roslyn became homeless but she also went through an emotionally abusive marriage (The Herald-Progress agreed to withhold her last name for this story because of that situation).
The two groups helped her find her current townhouse and used federal funding to help Roslyn afford her rent.
In order for organizations to receive money to help people find housing, Hedrick said it is the organizations’ responsibility to prove the county’s need because numerous other localities also apply.
“We know anecdotally that it is here, but anecdotally does not make the case for needing funds,” Hedrick said.
Path to Homelessness
There are a number of different reasons someone may end up without a home.
Some have mental issues “and cannot sustain themselves very well,” Willis said.
Others may lose their jobs and can no longer afford their rent, and, as a result lose their housing. Willis said that when they do find a new job, they now face a bad credit history after losing their previous residence, which prevents them from transitioning to a new home.
If they do find an affordable place to live, some often have trouble paying both a security deposit and first month’s rent to secure a home or an apartment, Willis said.
This was a problem Dana Pankey, one of Willis’ local clients, encountered.
In the single motel room that is now her home, boxes of pots and pans sit on top of the family’s dinner table and plastic storage bins filled with clothes are pushed up against the wall. Pankey had to move herself, her three kids and some of their belongings into the long-term stay motel room after they lost their previous home. Two of her children are young adults and are staying with friends until the family finds a house.
Although Pankey has a stable job working for a company that provides homecare for the elderly, where she puts in 37 hours a week for a little over $8 an hour, she has had trouble finding an affordable house. The father is no longer in the picture, so Pankey’s salary is the family’s only source of income.
Each week, Pankey coughs up $165 for the motel room, which she said takes almost her entire paycheck. The rest of her income often goes to gas for driving to work and transporting the kids to and from school.
“I just hope I can get out of here soon,” Pankey said.
Often people transitioning from temporary shelter, a hotel or family member’s home, to a more stable living situation, face the challenge of finding housing within their budgets.
Pankey does not fit under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of “homeless,” because she is currently paying for a motel room on her own.
But like a number of people in Hanover County, Pankey struggles to pull together enough money for both a deposit and first month’s rent for a rental home while making close to minimum wage.
Sometimes she even has a hard time affording her family’s current housing, reaching out to churches for monetary help on weeks that she may come up short on payments.
“It’s sort of hard to work in Hanover County and yet you can’t live [there],” Willis said.
As a result, Willis said people will live outside of the county where other problems arise such as finding transportation or a place to sleep near their job. Willis said individuals often “double up” in relatives’ homes near their work, sleep in their vehicles or stay at a motel.
“Most of them don’t have to worry about their credit and they wind up paying close to $200 a week in those motels,” Willis said. “But it keeps them out here and close to their jobs.”
In some cases, Willis said those who are working minimum wage jobs do become homeless. Although they can afford monthly housing payments, they can’t afford the initial security deposit plus rent.
“There are some issues that we do have in Hanover County,” Willis said.
Liesel Pusey holds a candle during a Tuesday night domestic violence vigil at Church of the Redeemer.
Victims of a Broken Home
While Hanover Safe Place also participates in the Rapid Re-housing program and received federal support before ACO joined them this year, the agency focuses primarily on the victims of domestic violence population.
According to HUD data, about 15 percent of Virginia’s homeless population are domestic violence victims.
Hedrick said the agency takes between 800 and 1,200 calls over their hotline service per year from victims of sexual assault or abuse from a significant other. The group also works with more than 400 clients who they support with counseling and assist with getting out of their living situations.
For individuals fleeing their home with nowhere else to go, HSP will provide them with temporary shelter.
One Ashland resident, who wished to remain anonymous because of a past emotionally abusive relationship, had to do just that. She left Virginia and was living with her kids and soon-to-be ex-husband in Pennsylvania at his mother’s home. He started having physical relationships with other women and then eventually wiped out her bank account.
It was not until she returned to Ashland for a friend’s wedding that she decided to leave him. But she didn’t have a job or much money. Local agencies played a big role with helping her get back on her feet with counseling and finding a consistent, safe home for her family through Rapid Re-housing.
Even after she was in a new home, she continued to receive emotional support.
“Our job doesn’t stop once someone gets housing,” Hedrick said.
Besides providing support and services for domestic violence victims, HSP’s other priority is making the community aware of that sub-group of the homeless population.
“I don’t think people recognize that need is here in our community,” Hedrick said.
Putting Roofs Over Heads
Ashland Community Outreach and Hanover Safe Place work with local landlords and other community organizations to find low-priced housing for individuals.
Willis said several landlords inherited apartments or townhouses from their family and rent them out at a low monthly cost, with the highest being $700. Those are often quickly snatched up, but Willis said her group tries to match individuals and families up with those opportunities whenever they come available.
The goal of the small organization is two-fold: help the homeless through prevention and by using the Rapid Re-housing model to get them under a roof.
On the prevention side, ACO’s priority is keeping people from losing their current housing. This comes in different forms such as gathering donations and funds from churches or offering emotional, credit or substance abuse counseling.
“We have to work together in making sure that we can do this,” Willis said.
There is also an educational aspect of prevention. Willis said the group will team up with other organizations to help train community members in specific skills for the workforce and prepare individuals for interviews.
For instance, Willis said in the past, ACO has sent clients to job fairs at Goodwill.
Willis said that if her organization can’t help someone, then she will direct them to an agency that can, such as various food banks where one can pick up an entire bag of groceries.
For prevention, there are no guidelines as to who can receive their help.
Rapid Re-housing is different from prevention because it uses federal funding. The program also has specific guidelines for helping those that are homeless based on HUD’s definition, meaning it is a more restrictive form of aide.
Recently Hanover Safe Place and ACO partnered up to focus on lowering the homeless population, while also concentrating on the domestic violence victim population, but they do not want to solve this problem alone.
“It’s not just about ACO or Hanover Safe Place,” Willis said. “We want to form a complete community in doing this.”
Hedrick added that both organizations want to continue to “expand [their] service” to those in need.
The duo is trying to team up with other community partners such as Ashland Christian Emergency Services or Mechanicsville Churches Emergency Function with one primary outcome in mind — that homeless situations are correctly reported in the county.
“We’ll begin to get real numbers now for what’s going on in Hanover County, because we are all partnering to do this together,” Willis said.