Editorial: Snow brings homeless problem into focus

The Virginian-Pilot & Daily Press Editorial Board, The Virginian-Pilot
·3 min read

The problem of homelessness is a year-round concern in Hampton Roads, though it comes into focus clearly during times of extreme weather. The recent snowfall might be pretty to watch through the window, with central heat running or a fire burning in the hearth, but it’s a threat to health for those without a safe, dry and warm place to lay their heads.

Fighting homelessness seems to be a constant battle, one complicated by a number of factors. But the recent cold spell reminds us that those organizations dedicated to serving the homeless are struggling and can use whatever help you can provide during this time of greatest need.

Much of the region awoke on Thursday to the pleasant surprise of a few inches of snow on the ground. Since Virginia remains under emergency orders due to the pandemic, most folks were spared the disruption to normal life and were left, for once, to enjoy the fleeting beauty of a landscape bathed in white.

That’s not the case for area residents who do not have a home to call their own. For them, the snow meant a dangerous night in treacherous conditions, huddled against bone-chilling cold and dampness. Outreach programs and government agencies coaxed as many people as possible into shelters to stay dry and get warm, but others remained at the mercy of the weather.

Getting an accurate tally of the homeless problem in our communities is a near-impossible task, but estimates suggest there are about 5,000 people in Virginia without adequate shelter. These individuals live at the margins of society, never quite in full view, and even organized effort to count them is challenged by their distrust of officials (particularly law enforcement), even when those doing the outreach have their best interests at heart.

But we know some aspects of the homeless problem in Hampton Roads — that it is substantial, and that it has been made worse by the pandemic, which has driven an increase in joblessness, destitution and evictions. Often there are other associated problems, including drug addiction, domestic violence or mental illness, for which homelessness is a symptom rather than the cause.

For a long time in many communities, the homeless were considered a problem to be removed, not to be solved. Cities competed to make their streets less accommodating, seeking to displace them to another jurisdiction, where they would be another government’s problem.

But it seems in recent years that Hampton Roads cities have recognized the folly, if not the inhumanity, of that approach, and groups working in the region rarely limit themselves to helping people in only one city.

Hampton Roads is fortunate to have a Regional Housing Crisis Hotline (757-587-4202, or Toll Free at 866-750-4431) that serves as a starting point for getting help.

We’ve also seen a renewed effort to centralize programming within shelters to assist those in need on a variety of issues, to get at the root problems driving a lack of shelter. Virginia Beach’s Housing Resource Center on Witchduck Road, completed in 2018 at a cost of $29 million, is a prime example.

By attacking the root causes of homelessness, and helping people off the street and into permanent housing, communities can make a lasting difference.

Not only is it vital that we tend to those without shelter when their lives are threatened by extreme heat and cold or otherwise inclement weather, we must work to keep people in their homes. That be done fairly and equitably, of course, and there is genuine worry that government’s intervention on behalf of tenants could leave landlords in the lurch.

Still, the focus should be on helping those without shelter. Organizations which serve the homeless in Hampton Roads — such as ForKids and the Samaritan House — are struggling and can use your support. And voters should signal their support for investment in abuse counseling, mental health care and other programming that are proven to work.

Homelessness isn’t a problem that disappears with the melting snow. Please make helping those in need a regional priority.