Concern over pandemic’s effect on the homeless dominates council meeting

Homeless residents wait outside of the Harrisonburg Catholic Church for the Open Doors thermal shelter to open in this photo from last November. Open Doors coordinates with various churches who offer the use of their buildings for a low-barrier, thermal shelter for homeless residents to receive a hot meal and sleep during the winter months. With the rising homeless population a year-round permanent shelter has been suggested, as several downtown business fronts and public spaces are being occupied by homeless people. (File Photo by Holly Marcus)

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

COVID-19 drove the discussions during Tuesday evening’s Harrisonburg City Council meeting, as the council confirmed a local state of emergency and addressed the public’s questions about how the city could help those experiencing homelessness during this pandemic. 

And while the council conducted its business in the chambers in city hall as usual, members of the public called in questions through a phone line — another way in which social distancing has altered civic life. 

Ten people called in to give a public comment using the live phone line, all of them with a comment related in some way to the pandemic. Several expressed concern for the city’s homeless population, including Eric Olson-Getty, a staff member at Our Community Place. 

“All of our folks on the streets are sleeping in packed shelters at the Salvation Army or Open Doors,” he said, making them especially vulnerable to contracting the virus. He added that the thermal shelter Open Doors could be forced close in a week if another site isn’t willing to host them.

“Last Friday we already had one individual who showed up with symptoms … [we] got her to RMH, and thankfully, and I’m grateful to the city for doing this, you all were able to put her up in a hotel room where she could be isolated until she got her test results back,” he said

Olson-Getty and other callers asked the city to consider finding another facility, such as a gymnasium or auditorium, where unhoused people could be sheltered during the pandemic.

Mayor Deanna Reed responded to concerns about the homeless population, saying that she, City Manager Eric Campbell and Assistant to the City Manager Amy Snider have been meeting with the directors of local service organizations. 

“We are working on it daily with the stakeholders, and we do have options we are now looking into,” Reed said.

Council member George Hirschmann invited anyone who owned or had access to a motel, auditorium or similarly appropriate space to contact the council.

Vice-Mayor Sal Romero suggested using the public school buildings, which will now sit empty for the remainder of the academic year after the governor closed all schools in the commonwealth on Monday.

The council voted unanimously to confirm Campbell’s declaration of a local emergency because of the pandemic. City Attorney Chris Brown said the declaration allows the city manager to reallocate resources and secure aid more efficiently in response to COVID-19.

City leaders clarify incident at apartment building 

Two residents who attended the meeting in person spoke during public comment about an incident they had witnessed Tuesday through their work with Shenandoah Mutual Aid, an organization that distributes food and other resources to area residents in need. 

Steele Dunn said he was with the group, delivering food to a family living in Harris Gardens when the Harrisonburg Police Department came to “evict” a family from an apartment building on Vine Street. 

Police Chief Eric English told The Citizen after the meeting that the incident was not an eviction, but a response to a trespassing call. 

And both the city attorney and city manager clarified during the meeting in response to the comments that all evictions in the city are conducted by the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office, not the Harrisonburg Police Department.

“In order to be evicted, you have to be a resident or a tenant,” and the people in question were not, English said. 

Dunn and five others who called into the public comment period referenced the event. 

“Evictions have to stop now or we’re spreading the disease, we’re putting people at risk,” Dunn told the council. 

Virginia is under a de facto moratorium as a result of the Supreme Court of Virginia’s declared judicial emergency, which suspended non-essential, non-emergency court proceedings — including eviction cases — until April 6, as WHSV reported last Tuesday.

Local businesses look to city with concerns

Brown addressed a number of inquiries the city has received from local businesses concerned about surviving the pandemic. 

Some restaurant owners have asked the city to temporarily waive the late penalty and interest on unpaid meals tax, which Brown said brings in on average $1.2 million to $1.3 million a month in tax revenue. 

Staff had expressed concern about this, as the restaurant collects this tax from the customer and just “holds” it for the city, paying it in a lump sum each month. Thus, Brown said, it should not technically be used by a restaurant for operating funds, but he would look into the possibility of offering such a waiver and report back to the council.

Council member Chris Jones also asked city staff to look into the possibility of providing grants to local businesses, in addition to the interest-free Disaster Impact Loan Program that was instituted last week.

The pandemic’s effect on businesses also has a ripple effect on local tax revenue, which is of concern to city leaders as the council prepares to take up the city’s budget for the next fiscal year. Campbell reiterated during the meeting what he told The Citizen earlier this week: that the revenue forecast is already being affected.  

Also at the meeting:

  • The council unanimously approved the $1.45 million purchase of a property in Rockingham County to continue construction of the Eastern Raw Water Line, which will provide the city with a new water source from the south fork of the Shenandoah River. Director of Public Utilities Mike Collins said this should ultimately save the city money after the land is resold, as they will be able to build in a direct path rather than skirting around the 152 acre property.
  • The council unanimously adopted a policy which would allow one of them to participate in public meetings via electronic communications in the event of an emergency, for instance, if they decide to self-quarantine. A quorum would still need to be physically present.

Editor’s note, March 25, 2020: the article was corrected to state that the Harris Gardens incident occurred on Tuesday, not Monday.

Journalism is changing, and that’s why The Citizen is here. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. Thanks for your support.

Scroll to the top of the page

Hosting & Maintenance by eSaner

Thanks for reading The Citizen!

We’re glad you’re enjoying The Citizen, winner of the 2022 VPA News Sweepstakes award as the best online news site in Virginia! We work hard to publish three news stories every week, and depend heavily on reader support to do that.