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Community Shelter Offers Assistance to the Homeless

By Sharon Lynn,

Radford University communications intern, United Way of Montgomery County and Radford

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 12 - November 10, 1994

Where do homeless families in the New River Valley go? "Homelessness? I've never seen any homeless people here." If this is your response, you are not alone. Most people do not think there is a problem with homelessness here in the New River Valley because they cannot see it. However, just because we cannot see something does not mean it doesn't exist. The problem of homelessness is very real, and it is as close as our own backyard.

The Montgomery County Community Shelter, a United Way partner agency and Combined Virginia Campaign participant, is trying to address and remedy the growing problem of homelessness by providing temporary shelter and programs to help individuals and families in homeless situations. The shelter was founded in 1987 in Blacksburg and three years later moved to Christiansburg, where it currently houses three families at a given time. The shelter focuses on the whole family through a variety of rehabilitative efforts.

Cathy Brown, family development coordinator, spends much of her time helping residents find jobs, learn budgeting skills, and reestablish credit. The shelter also places emphasis on motivating individuals to rebuild the loss of self-esteem that accompanies the crisis they are experiencing.

"The homeless situation is a lot more prevalent than people realize," Brown said. "There have been 337 requests for assistance this year. This figure does not include the many individuals who do not request help for whatever reason." Many people have been laid off from their jobs, then evicted from their homes because they no longer receive income to pay their rent, medical bills, car payments, child care, insurance....

"It is a snowball effect that is caused by homelessness," Brown said. "Not the other way around, which is the misconception of many people." So why can't homeless people solve their problems through working for minimum-wage jobs? Income from two full-time jobs at minimum wage does not meet the basic needs of families. The total income per year for a full-time employee at minimum wage, before taxes, falls well below the guidelines for poverty for one individual. Most minimum-wage part-time jobs do not offer medical benefits. These costs must be picked up by the employee, adding further stress to an already tight money situation. According to Brown, child care has a direct relationship to homelessness. One week of child care costs between $65 and $80. Parents work full-time, but must turn much of their paycheck over to the child-care provider--leaving insufficient money to pay rent or other bills. Once a family falls into financial crisis, it is extremely difficult to climb out. According to federal government guidelines for affordable housing, for individuals working 40 hours per week at minimum wage, rent should not exceed more than 30 percent of the gross income, or $221. However, it is nearly impossible for a family to rent a house or apartment in this community for $221 per month. Subsidized housing is also available to people experiencing financial difficulties, but one late bill payment on their credit report makes them ineligible.

Affordable and subsidized housing are designed to help the homeless, but often the expectations and effectiveness of these programs are unrealistic. This is what makes the Montgomery County Community Shelter different. The shelter takes a proactive approach to homelessness by trying to prevent people from having to come to the shelter, or to return after they have left.

The shelter offers counseling services to people who may not yet have reached the crisis point. However, there are people who need a place to live, and the facility provides temporary shelter. Because it is the only shelter in the New River Valley, it is almost always full. The shelter has limited funds to assist with hotel rooms for "overflow" families. There have been many success stories from a cooperative effort between the shelter and its resident families. All the families who have come through the shelter are now in permanent housing. The shelter staff continues to do follow-up on families to ensure that they are successfully making it on their own.

"I would gladly give up my job if there was no longer a homeless population. However, the number of people who need help is growing," Brown said.

For more information about the Montgomery County Community Shelter, the United Way of Montgomery County and Radford and its other partner agencies, or the Combined Virginia Campaign, contact the United Way office at 381-2066.