Second forum on homelessness in Harrisonburg tackles myths and street outreach

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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) — Thursday, Aug. 23, was the second Mayor's Forum on Homelessness in Harrisonburg.

The first forum was held back in April. This meeting was held in the Rockingham County Administration building.

Over 60 community members came out to Thursday's forum, including organizations like the Salvation Army, Strength in Peers, Open Doors, and Mercy House.

Michael Wong, the Executive Director of Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority, discussed the city's ten-year plan to end homelessness.

Wong said employment remains a major issue and explained there is high demand for "permanent supportive housing" for individuals experiencing homelessness.

Another goal is to continue to invest in a rapid rehousing program in order to make homelessness a short-term problem, rather than a chronic issue.

Wong also said a major problem is when people who are discharged from a hospital, or released from jail, end up in unsafe situations.

"We're not gonna stop. This is too important to me as mayor, and to our citizens," explained Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed. "We need to come up with a strategic plan on how we can help our neighbors in need of housing and jobs, and to make sure they're taken care of."

Shannon Porter, of Mercy House; Sam Nickles, of Our Community Place; and John Whitfield, of Blue Ridge Legal Services, also discussed some myths of homelessness.

Porter discussed a misconception that a person is homeless because of poor choices; he explained that the vast majority of the time, it is a person's situation that has led to this issue.

He also explained that only 20% of the homeless population report drugs or alcohol as the cause, while 33% report drug or alcohol use while homeless. He said this difference in number is because people get into drugs and alcohol because they are homeless; not before.

They explained that although many people picture the homeless population as single men, families are the fastest growing sector of the homeless population.

Another myth is that the homeless population is transient, passing through the Valley on their way somewhere else. Some people came to the area for a job that didn't pan out, and they may be stuck where they are until they can find one.

"Through United Way, we went through our ALICE report. And we were able to see that there is definitely an issue here in Harrisonburg," said Mayor Reed.

Some of the panelists say the biggest issues for families in the area are transportation and childcare, as well as Virginia's strict eviction laws.

The non-profit Strength in Peers also discussed engaging in street outreach, showing the city's homeless population where they can get help.

Regan McManus explained that she believes one reason people are not able to utilize resources is lack of knowledge about them.

A new report from USA Today shows that between 2010 and 2016, Harrisonburg's concentrated poverty has increased by ten percent.

Mayor Reed says there will be more forums, although she is not yet sure of the dates.

Ashley Gordon-Becker, of the Salvation Army, and Rachel Howdyshell, of Open Doors, discussed what you can do right now to help. Gordon-Becker suggested contributing what you're comfortable with, whether it's a $5 Wal-Mart gift card or a cold bottle of water. Howdyshell also suggested getting involved with a non-profit you trust.

You can learn more about ALICE families in a WHSV special report here.