Seeking Solutions to Homelessness in Charlottesville
After NBC29 aired a story about homeless people begging for money in the middle of the streets, NBC29's Facebook and Twitter feeds lit up.
Some were angry that panhandlers were getting away with breaking the law and with police for not enforcing it. Others were sympathetic for people down on their luck trying to survive.
Why are so many homeless people finding their way to Charlottesville - and staying? There's certainly the impression that we're seeing more homeless on the streets, but is it true?
First, some perspective from surrounding states: chronic homelessness is up 27 percent in Tennessee. The National Alliance to Fight Homelessness says it's up 21 percent in West Virginia. But the reverse is true in Maryland, where the number of homeless is down by 23 percent. In Virginia, the number of those chronically on the streets is basically unchanged, down just 3 percent.
But in Charlottesville, experts say the numbers are slowly ticking up, and they're working to find a real solution.
"They're out there in the intersections and they're out there panhandling because they're making money," said Jeff Lenert, former PACEM Board chairman.
Panhandling is just one, very visible symptom of a larger problem of homelessness in the Charlottesville area.
"There's substance abuse, there's mental illness," Lenert said.
It's a problem with a variety of causes, and few simple solutions. The latest numbers collected in January show an estimated 195 people living in shelters in Charlottesville. And for the past few years, the numbers have stayed pretty constant.
"For the last three years, PACEM has seen about 220 people every winter. As an index of our population, that's actually pretty high. We're in kind of the top tier, the top quadrant of the state," said Colleen Keller, executive director of PACEM.
Keller says the issue isn't finding a bed for those in need; it's breaking the cycle of homelessness.
"We've had a terrific shelter and outreach network, but we haven't had much of plan for moving people on," Keller said.
Now, PACEM and others on the front lines are looking for new ways to fight homelessness. Moving beyond shelters, PACEM is moving toward a concept called "rapid rehousing."
"So you get people out of shelters, get them practiced being self-sufficient, and back into homes more quickly," Keller said.
In a small pilot program this year, PACEM moved a handful of homeless adults into small apartments, helped pay their rent, and assisted in the transition.
"It's been a great experiment. We help with their rent, and we hope to really see that increase next year," Keller said.
And that's just one small component of what's being done to try and bring down the number of homeless adults in Charlottesville.
For a look at the numbers, check out the area's 2013 Housing Inventory Count.