Market Street Park has looked a little different the past couple of weeks.

What was once a mostly empty greenspace has become a bustling community of people — living in tents. They're singing songs, smoking cigarettes (and other things), playing and “knighting” one another with plastic swords, sharing meals and creating lots of trash. There have been some fights, including a stabbing. A dog got loose and caused chaos.

The tent community, or rather, the visibility of it, has catapulted the city into turmoil, and brought into plain sight the growing number of homeless individuals living in Charlottesville.

“We sleep on the stoops, you know,” said Gregory Adams, one of the unhoused people camping in the park. “You didn’t see us as much as you do right now, but we were still there. Just like the rats. We were still there.”

Their sudden stark visibility means people all around the city are talking about the tent community and are inundating city leaders with demands to do something about it. City leaders want to address it — and the issue of homelessness more broadly. With the tent community growing, they're working on a plan.

At a City Council meeting Monday, Oct. 2, City Manager Sam Sanders presented a “homeless intervention strategy.” The city's main focus is on opening an additional shelter — or several.

“But I’m not running to do that at this moment because I don’t know how big that facility needs to be, and I don’t know if it is one, two or three facilities,” Sanders said. “Because, in that population, there are differences among what the issues are and we need to address them where they are. And that might mean that we have, this facility does this, this facility does this, and another facility does this.”

The thing is, for two years, Charlottesville had a shelter that successfully took some of the city's most difficult to house people — many who came from similar situations as those camping in the park — and found them homes.

The front of a motel-like building, with wood panels and support structures holding up the crumbling awning, A cooler and chair are among peoples belongings that sit in from the doors.
Premier Circle sheltered more than 100 people in the two years it was open. By the time it closed in June 2023, PACEM had found housing for 91 of its guests. Kori Price/Dexter Auction

People And Congregations Engaged in Ministry (PACEM, pronounced “pah-chum”) ran the shelter at the old Red Carpet Inn on Premier Circle from May 2021 to June of this year.

By the time the shelter closed on June 30, its staff had helped 91 people — some of whom had been homeless for more than a decade — find and move into housing. Fourteen guests left without a key to a place of their own, but most of them had leases lined up, or a housing subsidy to help them find a place. A massive feat, according to shelter staff, social workers, and local healthcare providers.

“I hoped for half that,” said Jayson Whitehead, PACEM's executive director.

More about Premier Circle

It's something few shelters, anywhere, are able to do. Many shelters lack funding for case management staff and services. And, even if they have it, it is extremely difficult to find homes for people who have low or no income, bad or no credit, criminal histories, prior evictions, or even no form of identification. It's even more difficult when the people in these situations have mental health or substance abuse issues, which is often also the case.

Some of the people — PACEM calls them guests — who landed at Premier Circle had been homeless for a decade or longer, said Whitehead. One guest, a woman in her 80s, hadn't had a place of her own in more than 20 years.

Had the shelter continued, its homeless service workers are convinced they could move hundreds more people off the streets. But it closed this summer because the COVID-19 funding that made it possible dried up. Even if PACEM had received money from local governments to continue the shelter, it couldn't have continued in that location — the buildings were falling apart.

For those reasons, PACEM leaders said they had little hope of re-creating this kind of shelter in the near future. But, with Charlottesville now crying out for a solution to homelessness, and Sanders searching for solutions, could this be the city's chance to bring that type of shelter back and make it permanent?

Finding 91 people housing seemed like a miracle — but it wasn't

A woman in a yellow t-shirt talks on the phone in a parking lot, in front of a one-story motel, with a truck parked in front.
Liz Nyberg, shelter operations manager for PACEM, paces on the phone in front of Premier Circle. The shelter for homeless people closed in June 2023, but the organization helped 91 people into housing over two years. Credit: Kori Price/Dexter Auction

About a month before the shelter closed, Heather Kellams, PACEM women's case manager, sat in her office. She'd tacked a fundraising calendar featuring a photo of a butterfly on the wall, and neatly organized stacks of paperwork, some more than a foot high, on the windowsill.

“Sometimes when I drive my car out of here, I'm like, ‘How did we just house that person?' or ‘How did that happen?'” Kellams said. “How did I just find a private landlord that has two or three apartments available? How did we find places for people with sex offender charges, assault charges, seriously mentally ill, schizophrenic? How did that just happen?'”

Kellams grew up in Charlottesville and has been a social worker here for nearly 30 years. She worked with teenagers convicted of crimes before joining PACEM four years ago. She knows the area, and its people.

And while finding housing for dozens of homeless people in the area might have seemed like a miracle, it wasn't that at all.

It had everything to do with the type of shelter they were running and the services they offered, said shelter staff and the volunteers who worked with them. And the many hours of hard work that staff and guests alike put into it, said Kellams.

The shelter at Premier Circle was a low-barrier shelter, meaning that people using drugs or alcohol, or who had a criminal history, could stay there. That is not the case at most overnight shelters, anywhere.

Compared to other local shelters, Premier Circle had fewer rules than the Salvation Army, another overnight shelter. And The Haven, another local shelter, is a day shelter only — people do not sleep there.

Many of the folks who landed at Premier Circle weren't eligible to stay at, or had been kicked out of, other shelters. Some didn’t want to stay at other shelters based on past experiences, but had burned bridges with friends, family and others who might help them. Others had become homeless after losing their jobs, or having serious, debilitating medical issues that left them unable to work and pay rent, or stay safely in other shelters.

“People who are unhoused often have mental health needs that may include major depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, substance misuse or abuse,” said Brenda Doremus-Daniel, a clinical social work psychotherapist at UVA Hospital, who worked with guests at Premier Circle. Add medical comorbidities on top of that, and these folks are particularly vulnerable and also more difficult to find housing for, she said. That's part of why Premier Circle was so special.

“Premier Circle provided a more stable living situation, so folks could focus more on medical care and mental health care,” said Doremus-Daniel. “It's really hard to do insight development, learn coping strategies, and evolve into the best version of ourselves when we are worried about where we're going to sleep. You can't do your best problem solving when you absolutely have to focus on your most pressing needs.”

At Premier Circle, each shelter guest had a private room with a bed, a bathroom, and other basic amenities. They received fresh linens and towels, as well as regular meals and all the coffee they wanted. They also received mental and physical healthcare from UVA Medical Center nurses, doctors, psychiatrists and medical students.

“The services that case management at Premier Circle had available actually increased the likelihood of attendance in the UVA University Medical Associates behavioral health clinic,” said Teresa Radford, a UVA nurse who has worked with unhoused patients.

That the shelter was located on a single site and allowed people to stay for an unlimited period of time mattered, too, said Kellams. Case managers and staff could find their clients easily, and they could rush to a client's room in case of an emergency — something that's difficult, and sometimes impossible, when working with people living on the street.

It's very hard to get disability. You get denied all the time. That's your life. You've got to have it if you can't work, and a lot of people just can't get it. So when people get disability around here, it's a huge, huge thing.

—Heather Kellams, PACEM women's case manager

“You lose touch with them,” said Whitehead.

“And then they get in more trouble,” said Kellams.

The two sat together in Kellams office and gave each other knowing looks.

“They kept tabs on us, for better or worse,” said Chris, a shelter guest who didn't want to share his last name, in part because he said he'd “spent time in jail.” He wouldn't say what for.

Sometimes the middle-aged man said he needed a little extra push from his case worker to take the next step, and because he was staying in one place, his case manager could easily find him to give him that push.

The best part of Premier Circle, Chris said, was that he wasn't stressed while staying there.

“We're not sleeping on the street, on concrete and bricks, which can really put a toll on somebody's body,” he said. “Don't have to dodge cops just to find a place to sleep at night. And I can sleep comfortably at night. I don't have to worry about keeping on guard. I'm not stressed.”

Chris said a few different things contributed to him living on the street, including time at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail (the “Avon Hilton,” he called it), and being evicted.

He's tried other shelters in town, but he said they stressed him out.

Chris is also very ill. He has sleep apnea and, in 2018, had a vertebrae removed from his spine.

“I got both feet in the grave,” he said. It took him four tries to get disability benefits from the government, but he finally did while staying at Premier Circle.

“It's very hard to get disability. You get denied all the time. That's your life. You've got to have it if you can't work, and a lot of people just can't get it,” said Kellams. “So when people get disability around here, it's a huge, huge thing.”

Chris recently moved into an apartment at the newly-renovated Crescent Halls, a subsidized apartment building for seniors and people with disabilities owned and operated by the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority. It took “a five mile stack of paperwork,” he joked, holding his hand over his head and looking at the tall stacks of papers on Kellams' office windowsill.

“I can't wait to wake up one morning and have a nice big breakfast,” he said, inhaling as if he could smell his meal. “Scrambled eggs, fried potaters, sausage, a couple slices of country ham. Biscuits. I'm not talking no store-bought biscuits. Homemade. It's my great-grandma's recipe.”

One of the biggest challenges is getting enough stability to get through the paperwork

A man hoists a piece of furniture out of a white truck while another man (back to camera) pushes forward a chair. A woman in a blue jumpsuit stands between, helping.
PACEM women's case manager Heather Kellams (center) helps a shelter guest move into his new apartment. Credit: Erin O'Hare/Dexter Auction

Getting Chris and other guests to the point where they could do something as ordinary as wake up in their own homes and cook their own breakfasts took an extraordinary amount of work.

When a guest arrived at the shelter, PACEM used what staff calls “case management bingo,” a protocol for getting folks “stable enough so that they're not going to break the rules and get kicked out of the shelter, because if they get kicked out we can't work with them,” said Kellams.

For instance, Kellams encouraged one of her clients to have six, instead of 12, drinks one day so that the client would be lucid enough for a mental health appointment, or for an hour of filling out paperwork.

But that was only the beginning of the long, winding path toward housing.

For the duration of the Premier Circle shelter, PACEM had two full-time case managers (including Kellams) and two part-time case managers. PACEM's operations manager and evening shelter director both provided significant case management, even though it wasn't their full-time job, said Whitehead. Other shelter staff, like shelter monitors, frequently pitched in as well.

Whether or not a guest was motivated to walk that path with their case manager, mattered too. Most were, but not all.

Case managers had to figure out what each individual person's situation was in order to best help them. Does that person have income? Can they work? If so, what jobs are available for them? If not, do they receive disability or social security benefits? Are they eligible for those benefits? What do they need to apply? Do they have a criminal history? A prior eviction? All of that matters when looking into what sort of help, or housing, someone might attain.

It's hours upon hours of paperwork. And none of that paperwork can be completed without IDs, and some guests — like Chris — arrived at the shelter without one. Everything is then put on hold while case managers help find copies of birth certificates and social security cards, and even take them to the DMV so that they can get a state-sanctioned ID.

After the case managers have a full picture of their client's situation, they apply for housing subsidies. There are a variety of types of housing subsidy, but in general, subsidies exist to help people who cannot afford to pay market rate rent in their area. Oftentimes, people pay a portion of their incomes (whether it's from a job, social security, or disability benefits) toward rent and utilities while the government covers the rest.

Each type of subsidy has eligibility rules, and there are a number of organizations in the area that can issue them. The Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority has a certain number of subsidies and vouchers available, as does the Albemarle County housing office, Region Ten, The Haven, Virginia Supportive Housing, and the Veterans Administration, as well as a few others. But all of those programs have long waitlists.

Most Premier Circle guests ended up with some sort of housing subsidy. And once they had the subsidy in hand, they began looking for a place to live. Case managers and shelter staff looked at countless apartment listings, talked with private landlords they already knew, talked with management at apartment complexes, and avoided the landlords and complexes they knew from experience would not rent to a PACEM client.

They got a lot of denials, said Kellams.

“What made Premier Circle successful was the incredible pursuit of [housing] by this core team,” said Whitehead. “You're talking about tirelessly calling this person, that person, filling out paperwork again that you filled out two months ago. It was dogged.”

And when people do get accepted, the homes must be inspected to make sure they meet the conditions laid out in the subsidy, and then they sign the lease. Along with that, there's the matter of paying first and last month's rent. Some guests were able to save up for that while staying at the shelter while others received assistance from PACEM's Secure Seniors program or another local organization.

The work didn't end there. PACEM staff helped people find furniture for their apartments and helped them move into their new homes.

For 91 people.

Having stability to find housing ‘changed the game' for one couple

Two people sit on a sofa with many pop culture posters and pictures on the wall behind them. They are looking at each other, smiling.
Lydia Wolfe and Justin Cave were, at first, denied a spot at Premier Circle. But once they got a spot, it helped them find housing — and now they say more people should have that chance. “Something has to be done,” Wolfe said. Credit: Kori Price/Dexter Auction

Lydia Wolfe and Justin Cave moved from Premier Circle into an apartment of their own in December 2022. By summer, it was starting to feel like home: Walls covered in vintage horror movie posters; a bookcase full of DVDs, punk CDs and fantasy novels; shelves covered with vintage toys and cartoon figurines.

They laugh whenever someone points out that their last names match their décor.

“It feels like our own little cave,” said Wolfe, looking at a Dracula poster and smiling. “I don't think we had that before.”

Wolfe and Cave have been together for about nine years, and homeless off and on for three of them. They say they often feel unsafe in the world: Both are members of the queer community and both struggle with their mental health. Cave has been hospitalized for mental health treatment.

Wolfe, who is nonbinary, is also physically disabled: They have arthritis throughout their entire body, suffered injuries in two serious car crashes and have Hashimoto's disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the thyroid. On top of that, their spine is deteriorating.

Cave is estranged from his family, and most of Wolfe's family has died.

The couple became homeless at the end of 2019, after leaving what they said were multiple emotionally abusive situations.

At that point, Cave was working. But Wolfe's arthritis was so bad, they had to quit cosmetology school — a lifelong dream — because standing up was too painful. Walking was just about impossible.

The couple lived in a hotel for a while before renting a trailer home in West Virginia, where they lived until 2021. The walls and ceiling were falling in, there was a huge hole in the bathroom floor, said Cave. They decided they'd rather be homeless than live in the trailer.

“It was traumatizing and demoralizing,” said Wolfe.

They put their things in a storage unit and drove to Warrenton, where they first stayed in a shelter. Cave got a job working on a farm, then got a better-paying job working on another farm, one that offered housing to all of its employees. The couple started to feel stable again. They had housing, they had income.

But then Wolfe got sick. Really sick. It was gallstones, and Cave sometimes missed work to care for Wolfe.

One night, when Cave was working the night shift, Wolfe woke up to sharp abdominal pain so severe they couldn't take a deep breath. Cave left work to take Wolfe to a hospital in Culpeper. Test results showed that Wolfe's gallbladder was completely infected and needed to come out, immediately.

Wolfe was transferred by ambulance to Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville for emergency surgery, with Cave following behind in his car. But the surgeon told Wolfe that he wasn't comfortable doing the procedure. He worried that Wolfe's gallbladder might rupture during the operation, which would make Wolfe more susceptible to sepsis. He recommended putting a drain in Wolfe's stomach and after a month, surgery would be safer.

Wolfe was in the hospital for four days, and Cave did not leave their side. He lost his job and thus their housing.

They had 30 days to leave their home. But Wolfe was scheduled for surgery around the same time. Wolfe tried everything: Calling the homeless hotline in Charlottesville and a similar resource in Culpeper, following every possible lead to dead end after dead end.

“Everybody was telling us, ‘We have no resources. We don't know what to tell you,'” Wolfe said.

Wolfe called the surgeon's office and said, “I don't know how we're going to do the surgery, because we're going to be homeless.”

The couple moved their things into a storage unit once more, and lived in their car for a few days. Through the doctor's office and the Blue Ridge Area Coalition for the Homeless, they got a room at the Affordable Suites of America, an extended stay hotel on Harris Road in Charlottesville so that Wolfe would have 10 days to recover post-surgery.

Ten days turned into two weeks, which turned into a month, then another month. Every time they went to the front desk to settle up, BRACH had extended their stay. Cave and Wolfe joked that some wealthy vigilante, maybe Charlottesville's version of Batman, was helping them out anonymously. But that wasn't exactly the case. BRACH used government COVID-19 emergency funds to pay for hotel stays not just for Wolfe and Cave, but for a number of folks who were, or became, homeless throughout the pandemic.

This was the last place we could go, and we got rejected. I felt like nobody was listening to us, that we had no voice, that people were willing to see us die on the street rather than do anything and everything they can.”

—Lydia Wolfe on their search for housing in the Charlottesville area

When their hotel stay neared the end, the couple looked at shelter options, but none of the local shelters could meet their needs. Wolfe needed a place that was private so they could take care of their post-op scars and recover from the major surgery. The Salvation Army houses people together in large rooms with bunk beds, and The Haven is a day shelter only. Wolfe said that other social services agencies said they had nothing for them and suggested that Wolfe go into a nursing home and leave Cave to find shelter himself.

The couple did not want to do that.

Wolfe and Cave were even turned away from Premier Circle. Staff weren't sure they could meet their medical needs, said Kellams. Staff also had concerns about Cave's mental health.

It was devastating to the couple.

“This was the last place we could go, and we got rejected,” said Wolfe. “I felt like nobody was listening to us, that we had no voice, that people were willing to see us die on the street rather than do anything and everything they can.”

Then an attorney with Charlottesville's Legal Aid Justice Center got involved and said that by refusing the couple care for those reasons, Premier Circle was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, Kellams said.

After working through some legal logistics with Legal Aid and PACEM, Wolfe and Cave got a room at Premier Circle. “Once we got in there, we didn't have to fight to get help anymore,” Wolfe said.

“They feed you, they take great care of you. They always had someone you could talk to,” said Cave.

After a few months at the shelter, and with Kellams' help, the couple got a housing voucher and found a one bedroom apartment in Albemarle County, just outside Charlottesville City limits.

“PACEM gave us so much in such a short amount of time. It changed the game. We may not be where we want to be completely, but PACEM gave us a chance,” said Wolfe, who is now working toward a G.E.D.

Wolfe and Cave are upset that the shelter is closed. They believe that other people should have the chance at the help they received.

“Something has to be done,” Wolfe said.

Looking for resources for housing, health, transportation and other types of support? Bookmark Street Sheet Resources, produced and kept up to date by various agencies. It has resources you can use or share with neighbors, and have printable versions in many languages.

Pandemic grants got Premier Circle started, but there wasn't enough to keep it going

Two people push a cart and bicycle to the edge of a parking lot where a chain link fence opens up to the street.
PACEM staff Liz Nyberg, director of shelter operations (left) and Jessica Eubanks, a shelter monitor, help close up Premier Circle in June 2023. While they went into the shelter project knowing that it would end, they didn't anticipate creating a shelter model that would work as well as it did. Once PACEM's staff knew the shelter would be closing, they stopped taking guests and focused on housing everyone who remained. That last evening, staff helped a few guests move their things into the Royal Inn hotel across the street. Kori Price/Dexter Auction Credit: Kori Price/Dexter Auction

That PACEM even had the opportunity to do this kind of shelter work was an anomaly, one that would not have happened without the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the early months of the pandemic, Piedmont Housing Alliance and Virginia Supportive Housing received a repayable grant to buy the Red Carpet Inn for $4.3 million. At first, the old hotel would serve as an emergency shelter for people especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

After about a year, the hotel would be demolished to make way for low-income apartment-style housing. That's still the plan, though it's taking longer than expected.

PACEM's expenses for the shelter averaged $75,000 per month ($900,000 per year), and most of that was staff wages. That's probably about what it would cost to re-start the shelter in a different location, plus the actual building cost. Other significant expenses were providing dinner every night and supplies to keep the shelter going, like cleaning supplies, air filters and gloves.

PACEM did not have to pay rent on the site, and the Blue Ridge Area Coalition for the Homeless covered water, electricity, Wi-Fi and security cameras. Piedmont Housing Alliance, which owns the site, covered maintenance.

So, while PACEM staff went into the shelter project knowing that it would end, they didn't anticipate creating a shelter model that would work as well as it did.

Because of its wild success, Kellams, the women's case manager, was certain that the shelter wouldn't have to close, it would just have to move. She thought that surely the community would hear of the good work PACEM had accomplished at the shelter and a wealthy philanthropist or two would step up and say, “Here's the money, here's a space.”

But no such person showed up. For a moment, Kellams wondered if she was too optimistic, but decided that wasn’t the case. To her, and other shelter staff, it seems like a no-brainer.

“Our work speaks for itself,” said shelter monitor Jessica Eubanks on the last day of the shelter's operation. “I'm not saying that other organizations don't play their key roles. They do. But none of them have this.”

UVA Medical Center staff agreed.

“Premier Circle offered something that we don't commonly see amongst other cities that I've worked with, or cities that UVA would work with, like Staunton or Waynesboro,” said Jack Hooppaw, a patient advocate in the homeless services arm of UVA Medical Center's Population Health Program. “But, I think it's kind of the ideal state.”

Premier Circle wasn't perfect, said Kellams. They had to kick some people out, and had a waitlist dozens long from the moment it opened.

Once staff knew the shelter would be closing, they stopped taking guests and focused on housing everyone who remained. Guests panicked over being displaced. Staff said this was heart-wrenching. So was saying goodbye to the 20 guests who died while staying there.

And, perhaps the most difficult part, shelter staff said, was working with people who consistently refused to do things like fill out paperwork, or attend appointments with their case managers and doctors.

Charlottesville says it wants to increase shelter beds and housing opportunities

A hall with mats, cots and folding chairs, with people's belongings and backpacks.
For two weeks in February, Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church lent its social hall as an overnight congregate shelter for people experiencing homelessness. The organization that runs the shelter, People And Congregations Engaged in Ministry (PACEM), relies on local churches and other community centers to help provide shelter during the cold winter months. Every two weeks, the shelter moves to a new location in town. Kori Price/Dexter Auction Credit: Kori Price/Dexter Auction

Still, a shelter like Premier Circle — one that is low-barrier, rife with services, and in a set location — could help the city address many of the issues it is now trying to solve regarding homelessness, said Whitehead, PACEM's executive director.

In fact, it's very similar to one of the long-term goals City Manager Sam Sanders has in his newly-unveiled homeless intervention strategy, Whitehead said.

“In Sam's long-term plan, he's marrying year-round shelter with a lot of housing opportunities, which is what is needed. And like we experienced at Premier Circle [over] the last year.”

Part of why PACEM staff were able to move so many shelter guests into permanent housing was because people heard about the shelter's work and opened up more subsidies and housing opportunities to shelter guests, said Whitehead.

Anthony Haro of the Blue Ridge Area Coalition for the Homeless, also says an increase in shelter beds in Charlottesville should be matched with more housing opportunities.

“Housing ends homelessness,” Haro said. “If our community only increases shelter capacity and not permanent housing capacity — new rental units, rental assistance opportunities, supportive services in housing — we will face significant challenges in assisting people in leaving those new shelter units for housing.”

The plan Sanders presented to Council on Oct. 2 proposes doing exactly that: increasing shelter capacity as well as housing opportunities.

A shelter has to be able to move people into housing so that that bed can be available for the next person who needs help. A full shelter means people are still living on the street. Many typical emergency shelters in bigger cities, like Richmond, have a 45-day limit, said Whitehead, but that's not always enough time for someone to get back on their feet.

“Premier Circle was unique in that folks more or less lived there for years,” said Whitehead. Staff had time to work with them.

Premier Circle offered something that we don't commonly see amongst other cities that I've worked with, or cities that UVA would work with, like Staunton or Waynesboro. But, I think it's kind of the ideal state.

—Jack Hooppaw, patient advocate in the homeless services arm of UVA Medical Center's Population Health Program

PACEM still runs a winter overnight congregate shelter. Like Premier Circle, it is a low-barrier shelter and doesn't have a stay limit. But the shelter moves every couple of weeks, from church to church. Charlottesville's only year-round overnight shelter, the Salvation Army, doesn't have a stay limit, but it is stricter than PACEM's operations.

If the city decides it wants to fund a permanent low-barrier shelter, Whitehead says PACEM is ready. “We're stepping up and saying we want to help, but we need to have a place to do it.”

Right now, the organization is working with the City Manager's office to open its seasonal overnight congregate shelter. It was slated to open Oct. 28, but might open early to potentially shelter folks staying in Market Street Park.
PACEM's seasonal shelter will be able to give 35 men and 15 women a place to sleep this year. If they need to shelter more people, they partner with the Salvation Army, which offers extra space in a warm room. (The Salvation Army's 58 beds are usually full.) Whether that will be enough, staff aren't sure. Last winter, the demand for shelter beds was double what local shelters could accommodate.

Some of the folks staying in the park told Dexter Auction last week things they like about the park. They lined up with what former Premier Circle guests said about why they liked the shelter.

A 32-year-old woman said that right now, the park gives her a chance to rest. She said that she isn't able to rest when she sleeps on porches, nor in her apartment where she said she doesn't feel safe. In the park, she doesn't have to worry about being woken up by police or others. And, with all the people around, she said she feels safe there.

And though she likes the park for now, she knows it's not a feasible long-term solution.

She'd heard that PACEM wasn't going to operate this year — likely confusing Premier Circle with the seasonal congregate shelter — and said she wasn't sure what she'd do when it gets cold. She also said that she's wary of some of the service providers in town.

And Gregory Adams, who is camping at Market Street Park, said he was kicked out of the Salvation Army's shelter and has been sleeping downtown ever since.

The tent community there, and unhoused people living on and around the Downtown Mall, was the subject of many public comments during that Oct. 2 City Council Meeting.

Sanders said that he had received many emails from community members about his choice to lift the curfew on the park at the end of September, and the tent community that popped up immediately after. “I've been told to ‘tell people to get out of the park,' to ‘give us our park back, I don't care where they go,'” Sanders said.

“That has been hard to hear, not because I can't take the criticism, but because I can't accept that the desire to transfer a problem is the right way to go. We need to solve the problem. I don't apologize for caring about people.”

City Councilor Michael Payne mentioned during the session that the council had received many emails from community members asking them to “discipline” Sanders. Council will not be doing that, Payne said.

Community comments were passionate, and mixed.

Some spoke about how unhoused members of the community are keeping people away from downtown and therefore negatively affecting businesses.

Others were appalled at the way the community, broadly, treats people who are unhoused. “The rhetoric around our unhoused community members is, quite frankly, abhorrent,” said a resident named Anna, who did not give her last name.

Shannon Ellis, whose apartment is on the Mall, described seeing open-air drug use and stepping over discarded needles, and asked the city to enforce its “quality of life” laws surrounding noise, public disturbances and public urination.

“For months, in order to leave my apartment to go anywhere, I've had to walk past an unhoused man who regularly shouts obscene words and comments at me and the other women who pass him,” Ellis said. Recently, she saw him violently assault a woman, and though he was arrested, she said she questioned why the issue was only addressed after he hurt someone.

Some folks advocated for a low-barrier, overnight shelter run either by PACEM or The Haven. Like PACEM, The Haven is open to running such a shelter, Anna Mendez, the organization's executive director, said during the meeting. Commenters advocated for more deeply affordable housing, supportive housing, and wraparound services like mental health care and case management. Elizabeth Stark, an anti-eviction advocate, also asked the city to implement a Marcus Alert program, which would provide a behavioral health, rather than law enforcement, response to a behavioral health emergency.

Some said they were concerned that adding more homeless services will bring more people who are unhoused to town.

That's already happening here, Sanders said during his presentation to Council, before public comment. People are already coming to Charlottesville and Albemarle County, from other nearby counties, for services.

During his presentation on Monday, Sanders emphasized that while the tent community at Market Street Park is at the front of people's minds right now, it's not the sudden problem many people think it is. It is just the latest symptom of a long-simmering issue. While he's working on a short-term solution, he told the community they'd have to be patient.

“This is complex. There is no quick fix. There is no simple answer. There is no easy solution,” Sanders said. “It is going to be painful. The community has to appreciate that. It is going to hurt to deal with this, in more ways than one. That is not an easy thing for us to just wipe away as a problem. It doesn't happen that way. It is very, very complex. It is very complicated, and costly.”

Increasing funding for homeless services could draw more unhoused people to the city, according to a 2017 report from the Center for Poverty & Inequality Research at the University of California, Davis. Igor Popov, at the time a recent graduate of Stanford University's economics PhD program, conducted the study.

However, the people who relocate for services are more likely to be families rather than individuals, Popov wrote in his report. And, when these folks have access not just to shelters but to well-funded supportive housing programs, they're likely to participate in them. That actually decreases the overall unhoused population.

“As a result, the benefits of expanding funding for programs targeting individuals likely outweigh the costs,” Popov wrote.

PACEM shelter staff say that the community also has to manage its expectations about what a shelter, even one like Premier Circle, can accomplish. Even the best shelters cannot get everyone off the streets, they say. Whitehead has seen people refuse shelter beds and even free apartments.

A styrofoam food takeout container sits on the ground outside a tent. The letters "I GOT AHDD" are written on the top in black marker.
One of the men staying in Market Street Park said he put this styrofoam takeout container outside of his tent to let people know why people are living there. “You want to know why we're here? We all have AHDD: Acute Housing Deficiency Disorder.” Credit: Ézé Amos/Dexter Auction

Howard Terry was one of the men hanging out in the park last week, though he said he wasn't sleeping there. Terry was one of the Premier Circle guests who did not have a place to live when the shelter closed. The Blue Ridge Area Coalition for the Homeless paid for him to stay in the Royal Inn for about a month, while he continued looking for a place with his case manager.

But three months after Premier Circle closed, and weeks after he had to leave the Royal Inn, Terry still doesn't have a place. Terry, who is in his 60s, said he landed on the streets because he was convicted of rape about 20 years ago and spent a few years in jail. He said that's why he struggles to get a job and a place to live.

When he was at Premier Circle, he wasn't spending his days in the park.

No matter how the city moves forward with its goal of creating a year-round shelter, PACEM and others will continue doing their work, because it will always be needed.

“There will always be homeless people,” said Saudah Mensah, the case manager for PACEM's Secure Seniors program. Part of her job is helping her clients, many of whom don't know how to use computers, use online rent and utility payment systems to pay their rent and other bills on time, so they don't end up on the streets again.

“Drive around Charlottesville,” she said. You see it all the time. In the medians, downtown, at the parks. It's there. And people will always fall into homelessness,” Mensah said. “I don't feel like homelessness is something that can be completely fixed, ever. If it's not the same people, it will be new people.”

But as a case manager, she can help.

“Even if I could make just a little bit of difference. Sometimes things are baby steps, and sometimes you can make big leaps. But if I can make a little bit of change in your life, then we did good.”

Jessie Higgins contributed to this report.

I'm Dexter Auction's neighborhoods reporter. I’ve never met a stranger and love to listen, so, get in touch with me here. If you’re not already subscribed to our free newsletter, you can do that here, and we’ll let you know when there’s a fresh story for you to read. I’m looking forward to getting to know more of you.