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Solutions to homelessness require regional efforts

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Posted: Sunday, November 3, 2013 12:00 am

On any given day in the Richmond Region, there are between 700 and 1,000 people who are homeless, according to the January and July 2013 Point In Time (PIT) Counts of individuals experiencing homelessness.

Of that number, about 80 percent are single adults without children and about 10 percent are literally living on the streets, in camps, under bridges, in vehicles and on park benches. These “unsheltered” individuals are the most vulnerable, the ones most likely to die if they remain on the streets.

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There are no city limits for people who are homeless. While most people who are homeless were found in the city of Richmond during the two PIT Counts, homelessness is visibly on the rise in the region’s counties, especially among those who are unsheltered. In the most recent PIT, there were 72 unsheltered people in the city, down from 120 two years ago; and there were 22 unsheltered people in the counties, up from 10 two years ago.

What led to the reduction of unsheltered homeless individuals in the city? Three important, easily replicable factors.

First: best practice service provision. Evidence-based best practices prove that chronically homeless and medically vulnerable individuals who are homeless need stable, permanent housing with support services. This model, called permanent supportive housing, is designed for people who need both affordable housing and support services in order to remain stably housed.

Virginia Supportive Housing (VSH) was the first and is now the largest provider of permanent supportive housing in the state. For the past 25 years, we have successfully made it a priority to permanently house the most chronically homeless individuals — and 98 percent of those we house never return to the street.

The second factor: best practice collaboration. VSH, together with our community partners, The Daily Planet, Department of Social Services, Richmond Behavioral Health and Veterans Affairs, have identified more than 180 unsheltered vulnerable individuals most likely to die on the street. VSH has permanently housed 152 of these vulnerable individuals. But there are an additional 100 individuals living in shelters, and countless individuals on the streets, who could benefit from our housing and services.

The third factor, one of the simplest yet most difficult challenges in bringing an end to homelessness in our region, is building regional political will. We know this to be true because cooperation has led to a 25 percent reduction in chronic homelessness in Norfolk alone over the past five years.

It began with the mayors of the cities of Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach deciding to work together to find permanent solutions to homelessness. Thus began the Regional Task Force to End Homelessness, which is composed of city representatives and homeless service providers who are tasked by the mayors to work together on regional solutions.

This Task Force asked VSH to develop regional supportive housing in each of the four cities. VSH opened its fourth regional supportive housing residence in South Hampton Roads in March.

While the building is located in Chesapeake, Heron’s Landing houses 60 formerly homeless individuals from Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk and Virginia Beach. All five cities participated in the planning and development of this regional housing and helped with some of the financing.

There are three other similar 60-unit regional buildings: Gosnold Apartments in Norfolk opened in 2006, Cloverleaf Apartments in Virginia Beach opened in 2008, and South Bay Apartments in Portsmouth opened in 2010.

Working with the Task Force, VSH is developing a fifth supportive housing residence in Virginia Beach that will be a mixed-income community: 40 apartments for homeless and 40 affordable workforce housing units. When this project is complete, a total of 280 formerly homeless individuals will be permanently housed, and 40 low-income individuals will have access to affordable housing.

How successful have we been in the Richmond region? Two years ago, VSH was able to secure capital funding from Henrico and Chesterfield for a 21-unit addition to our permanent supportive housing development in Richmond. This brings the total number of units to 107 in Richmond — and 0 in the counties. VSH has attempted to develop supportive housing in the counties, without success.

What if the mayor and county managers, along with a couple of elected officials from each jurisdiction, could establish a Richmond Regional Task Force to End Homelessness?

They could work together to replicate successful best practice collaborations and service provision to end homelessness for the most vulnerable in our region. This can and should be done.

Alice Tousignant is the executive director of Virginia Supportive Housing, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. She has been with the agency since 1997 and has more than 40 years of experience in housing, homelessness and social services. She is past director of the Virginia Housing Coalition and associate director of the Division of Housing at the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.

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