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Homelessness drops in Lynchburg area

Amy Trent | Posted: Wednesday, April 27, 2016 8:43 pm

BY AMY TRENT

Homelessness is rapidly declining in Lynchburg and surrounding localities.

According to preliminary numbers released this month by the agency leading the fight to end homelessness — the Central Virginia Continuum of Care — the number of homeless people in the region has decreased by

27 percent in the past year while the number of homeless families has dropped by a whopping

44 percent.

The numbers are expected to be confirmed by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development this summer.

“This is our first benchmark of success,” said Tracy Dixon, a member of the continuum’s board of directors and executive director of Lynchburg’s Daily Bread, a nonprofit agency that feeds an average of 50,000 to 55,000 individuals annually.

“It is really wonderful news that overall, numbers are down. I’m surprised that we had such an impact so quickly.”

In 2015, the region had 167 homeless households and 237 homeless individuals.

This year, there are 138 homeless households and 174 homeless individuals living in the area.

“These numbers really help to begin to tell a story that the problem that we have is real. It’s across the country, but it’s also right here in our backyard,” said Denise Crews, a member of the continuum who has been part of the local homeless count for more than 16 years.

The decline in the homeless population, according to Crews and others, is due in large part to three quickly expanding re-housing programs run by Miriam’s House and Lynchburg Community Action Group Inc., better known as Lyn-CAG.

Started as a pilot program in 2013, Miriam’s House’s Community First program was designed to quickly get families and individuals experiencing homelessness, or at risk of homelessness, into stable housing. In its first year, Community First found housing for 15 individuals.

Last year, it found housing for 68 individuals in families and another 15 single women.

Sister programs are having similar successes.

“The COC and all of our community partners have been working hard at innovative methods of preventing homelessness, and one of those that has been very successful is rapid re-housing,” Dixon said.

“It’s really a part of a much larger, best-practices

shift,” she said.

Rapid re-housing, now a national initiative, represents a massive change in the way localities tackle homelessness. It acknowledges it is easier for individuals to get back on their feet, and do things like search for jobs and attend to their health, when they do not have to worry about where they are going to sleep at night.

In the past, clients had to slog through homelessness, shelter living and transitional housing before they were eligible for permanent housing.

One of the reasons the program is working is because it gives people hope when they need it most, said Sarah Quarantotto, Executive Director of Miriam’s House, which administers Community First.

“It’s far more hopeful to have a period of homelessness that’s 30 to 60 days than one that lasts for months,” Quarantotto said Wednesday. “… It also means more stability for children. Homelessness is super traumatic for families.”

To that end, Miriam’s House has changed its policy, reducing guest stays from six months to an average of 60 days.

Among other actions, Community First finds landlords willing to work with its clients and provides them with security deposits to get started. Local re-housing programs do everything they can to place clients into long-term homes and then envelope clients with support services to enable them to deal with the issues that led to their homelessness in the first place.

The continuum, funded by HUD, provides funding to nonprofits to support their efforts to quickly re-house homeless individuals and families to minimize the trauma and dislocation. It also helps the homeless access and use mainstream programs and achieve self-sufficiency

through special programming and financial supports.

Full staffing of the homeless intake program, which supports the continuum, for the first time since it started in 2014 is another reason for the decrease in homelessness, according to Crews, Lyn-CAGs director of housing and community development. Because of that, the agency is serving clients quicker than ever, getting them the services they need and, in many instances, preventing them from even needing a shelter.

That person serves as the gateway to all homelessness response programs.

Contributions from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs, aimed at increasing services for veterans, also have driven local numbers down.

In 2015, Lyn-CAG got about $300,000 from federal and state agencies to combat homelessness. It already has applied for the funding again this year. And Miriam’s House was awarded $62,565 in 2015 from the Department of Housing and Community Development for rapid re-housing. Miriam’s House went on to raise another $36,000 to fund the program and hire a full-time housing resource coordinator and provide clients with short-term financial assistance in the form of security deposits, utility deposits and rent.

The results are even greater than Quarantotto expected.

“We had hoped for a decrease, but certainly a 44 percent decrease [in homeless families] is incredible and far more than what is expected,” she said.

A few months ago, the continuum partnered with the Virginia Housing Alliance to develop a strategic plan to use to end homelessness and developed specific goals and objectives for the continuum, identifying local needs and priority populations. The continuum will continue to prioritize its services, getting aid to the most vulnerable and those with the least resources first, to try to prevent homelessness in the first place.

“Even though we’ve seen a decrease, we still have members of our community that are homeless and don’t have a place to sleep,” Quarantotto said.

“We do have a problem with homelessness, but we also do have real solutions.

“I have hope that we can reach a functional zero in the next few years. I definitely think that’s in sight.”

» Localities across the country are required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to count the number of homeless living in their community annually. That count is called a Point-in-Time Count.

The count is done in January. The information gleaned determines the amount of state and federal money made available to localities for homelessness intervention and prevention services.