Charlottesville City Councilor's faces were stoic Monday afternoon as representatives from local homeless service agencies presented a startling update on the state of homelessness in the area.

The news wasn't good: On any given day, their best estimates are that around 200 people in the community are experiencing homelessness, and there are not enough resources to help them.

At a presentation to City Council on Monday afternoon, all of the agencies reported serving more people than they had the previous year. And some of them reported serving more community members than ever before.

“Our clients are coming to us with greater needs and fewer resources,” said Liz Yohn, interim executive director of People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry, which runs a seasonal overnight shelter in the colder months.

After hearing the presentations, City Council and City Manager Sam Sanders wanted to know: What can they do to help?

The agencies were clear: Permanent, overnight low-barrier shelter beds; transitional housing; and permanent supportive housing.

During the public work session, which had very low attendance from the public, the Council heard presentations from seven different organizations that work together to provide what is called a “continuum of care” for people experiencing homelessness: the Blue Ridge Area Coalition for the Homeless (BRACH); People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry (PACEM); The Haven; The Salvation Army; the Shelter for Help in Emergency (SHE); Charlottesville City Schools; and Region Ten.

These organizations help many of the same individuals, just in different ways — for instance, someone who goes to The Haven day shelter for a hot meal, a shower, and laundry service, might also go to PACEM's seasonal overnight shelter in the winter and receive mental health services from Region Ten.

It's difficult to get an accurate count of just how many people in the community are experiencing homelessness, they said, because it's hard to keep track of folks who are living on the streets, in tents near the river, and encampments out in the woods. And not everyone who needs help, reaches out for it.

That said, they do have data to go off of, and they use a few different measures to paint a picture of what homelessness looks like in the community.

From their annual Point In Time Count, referred to as the “PIT Count,” conducted on Jan. 17 of this year, they know that 159 individuals experienced homelessness that night. They counted 145 sheltered — not just in a traditional homeless shelter, but sheltering in places unfit for human habitation, like under a porch — and 14 unsheltered.

But that 159 probably isn't a reliable number, said BRACH executive director Shayla Washington. She thinks there were actually more people, sheltered and unsheltered, experiencing homelessness that night, and that the agencies would have found and counted more people had it not been for the cold and windy weather that night. On nights like that, people try desperately to find any kind of shelter, so the agencies probably didn't encounter everyone they might have on a more mild night.

The 2023 PIT count was 191.

The agencies also know that at least 498 individuals have experienced chronic homelessness in Charlottesville, Albemarle County, and some surrounding counties between June 2023 and June 2024, with approximately 200 people experiencing it at any given time. They keep a list of them, called the “by-name list,” and revise it constantly.

As of Monday, June 17, the by-name list was 195 people long.

But even that number doesn't tell the full story — the by-name list is only the people who've reached out for help from one of the agencies. Washington said there are probably more out there.

This past winter, PACEM served 294 unique individuals in its overnight seasonal roaming shelter — more than in any of its previous 20 seasons, said interim director Liz Yohn. PACEM had capacity for 35 men and 15 women each night, and were operating over capacity almost every night of its season, which ran from October 2023 to April 2024.

Most nights, they had to send people to the warm room at The Salvation Army shelter on Ridge Street. The warm room is a single, heated room where people can sleep on cots or bedrolls. It's separate from the designated shelter rooms.

The Salvation Army shelter was full all winter, too, said Sandy Chirico, director of social services at The Salvation Army. And that hasn't changed — on Monday, there were 28 men and 21 women in the shelter. That meant the men's side was full, Chirico said. And longtime resident shelter and kitchen manager Brenda Smith told her she'd never seen that many women in the shelter at once.

“Our numbers are growing exponentially every day,” Chirico said.

The Haven, the day shelter on Market Street, receives “hundreds of callers every single month,” from people experiencing homelessness or who are in precarious housing situations and want to know what resources are available to them if they lose their housing, said Executive Director Ana Mendez.

Between June 2023 and June 2024, the Homeless Information Line received 1,310 calls from 587 unique callers, up from 755 calls from 259 unique callers in June 2022-23. 

Blue Ridge Area Coalition for the Homeless

Mendez and her staff — as with all of the agencies who presented to Council — can't keep up with the demand.

“On any given day, there are 200 people on the by-name list. On any given day, our system has the capacity to provide rapid rehousing services to about 20 of them. So, one-tenth,” Mendez said. “There is an order of magnitude more people in need of that service on any given day than our organization has the capacity to provide.”

Calls to the Homeless Information Line, a sort of starting point for someone looking for homelessness resources, have doubled in the past year, Washington said. Between June 2023 and June 2024, the hotline received 1,310 calls from 587 unique callers, up from 755 calls from 259 unique callers in June 2022-23.

The Shelter for Help in Emergency, which serves victims of domestic violence, receives even more calls — more than 2,000 per year — said SHE shelter fundraiser Sarah Ellis.

The SHE shelter provides emergency residences to about 200 adults and children each year, but Ellis knows more are out there.

“Domestic violence is a grossly under-reported crime,” Ellis said.

The families that SHE helps can't stay at The Salvation Army or PACEM shelters, and a traditional shelter isn't what they need, anyway, Ellis said. They need stable transitional housing, where they can stay for weeks, months, even years at a time. SHE has only a handful of places for families to stay, and they're often full.

The Haven, the day shelter on Market Street, receives “hundreds of callers every single month,” from people experiencing homelessness or who are in precarious housing situations and want to know what resources are available to them if they lose their housing, said Executive Director Ana Mendez. Credit: Charlotte Rene Woods / Dexter Auction

And speaking of families, Charlottesville City Schools has identified 136 students who are either homeless or housing insecure, for the 2023-24 school year.

That was down slightly from the 141 students identified for the 2022-23 school year. But, in the previous two school years, 2021-22 and 2020-21, CCS identified 48 and 55 students, respectively. BRACH's Washington doesn't know the reason for the spike, whether it was an actual increase in the number of students experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity, or whether staff got better at recognizing them.

These students face a particularly challenging situation, because there are no emergency shelter options open to them right now, Washington said.

What's more, the agencies reported that the vast majority of the people they help are local — people coming from Charlottesville, Albemarle and the surrounding counties.

The presenters had some ideas as to why so many people needed the help. The last of the COVID-19 pandemic relief funds, which gave many of these organizations more money to help more people, dried up on June 30, 2023, said PACEM's Yohn.

Chirico blamed low wages and high housing costs.

“The salaries don't support even the cheapest of housing in the Charlottesville area,” she said. “I don't know where we're going to go with that, but that's a big problem, too.”

“Wow,” said Vice Mayor Brian Pinkston quietly after the presentations concluded. Pinkston presided over the meeting in the absence of Mayor Juandiego Wade. He inhaled sharply, then thanked the presenters for their work and asked if the Council had questions for them.

“Probably the question that I get asked the most is, ‘What am I personally going to do to clean up the [Downtown] Mall?' And I want to turn that question around a little bit,” said Councilor Lloyd Snook. “We know that there are probably, I'm guessing, 15 people who are sleeping on the sidewalk on the Mall, very visibly. I'm sure there are many more less visibly. Are there two or three things we should be thinking of trying to do on the city level, to address that particular problem of the folks flat out sleeping on the Mall, sleeping in doorways?”

“It takes time,” Washington said, adding that providers must build relationships with folks who might not trust them. “I don't think ‘cleaning up the Downtown Mall' with people who are unhoused will necessarily happen overnight.”

Wow.

-Vice Mayor Brian Pinkston said quietly after presentations about homelessness concluded at a Charlottesville City Council meeting.

Councilor Michael Payne said he was interested in hearing about some concrete solutions, things the Council could put into a budget line item and make happen with money.

“That's hard, and not easy,” Payne said. “But until we do that, we'll have the same presentation every single year, because the limiting factor is that and it won't change until those investments get made.”

So, City Manager Sam Sanders put the presenters on the spot.

He asked Washington what she needs for BRACH.

At least one, but preferably two, outreach positions, she replied. People who work in outreach intentionally grow relationships with the folks in the community they know, or suspect are, experiencing homelessness.

The goal is that by building relationships and trust, the people who are not yet in the homelessness continuum of care can enter it, and eventually get off the streets and into housing, Washington explained to the Council.

Almost everyone who works in a shelter setting does some kind of outreach, but having someone dedicated to it moves things along a lot faster, Washington said.

Additional outreach positions would “eventually move our chronic and veteran homeless numbers downward, and eventually shift those people into permanent housing,” Washington said.

In looking at all of the numbers they presented — the PIT Count, the by-name list, the shelter statistics — Sanders asked them what they'd need for shelter beds.

“Lots,” someone said.

“I can't fund lots, but I can fund numbers,” Sanders said. “I am asking you all as the experts to diagnose. What is the scope of our need?”

After some discussion among the presenters, they said that 100 permanent, overnight low-barrier shelter beds would do it. That would meet the current need and account for the people who would “inevitably” arrive in town for the promise of a shelter bed, said Washington.

A screenshot of people at a dais with microphones and laptops. Text reads "City Council Meeting June 17, 2024."
“I can't fund lots, but I can fund numbers,” Charlottesville City Manger SamSanders said at a meeting about homelessness with service providers. “I am asking you all as the experts to diagnose. What is the scope of our need?”

The Salvation Army plans to build a new shelter, with 114 (instead of the current 52) beds for single adults and 7 units of family transitional housing. The organization hopes it will be completed in the next few years — by late 2026 at the absolute earliest. The organization is still in the fundraising phase.

That would help immensely, the presenters said, but it wouldn't cover all of the need: The Salvation Army is a high-barrier shelter, which means that people who don't pass the background check or the drug test, or whose blood alcohol content is above the legal limit to drive (0.08), can't stay there. Those folks can use low-barrier shelter services, like those offered by PACEM and The Haven.

The presenters also asked for permanent supportive housing — very low-cost housing with case management services for people with disabilities and mental illness. (There is a permanent supportive housing project planned for the area, on Route 29 North in Albemarle County's urban ring, but it's not fully-funded yet.)

Sanders asked Ellis, in an ideal world, how many units of transitional housing would the SHE shelter have.

“We'll take any more than we currently have,” Ellis said sheepishly.

Sanders pressed for a number.

“In an ideal world, if we had 20, 30, could we fill them? Yes,” Ellis said. “Yes, we could probably fill more than that, truthfully. But 20 would be a blessing to start.”

Earlier this year, the city purchased a piece of property on the corner of Avon and Levy streets for a possible shelter and supportive housing project. Sanders has yet to announce a plan for it.

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.