$326K to go toward property to help homeless; Meanwhile Hburg residents at poverty level increase

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

The Harrisonburg City Council on Tuesday approved spending remaining federal CARES Act funds to buy property to help address homelessness in the community — a step some city leaders said they hope will lead to a year-round shelter. And housing insecurity was a theme at Tuesday’s meeting as council members learned more about the increasing numbers of residents teetering on the brink of or already in poverty.  

The council unanimously approved a proposed amendment to the Community Development Block Grant Action Plan that would allow $326,630 to go toward some kind of long-term solution to house the homeless.

Deputy City Manager Ande Banks told the council the amendment is “structured to allow the city to address homelessness with the greatest amount of flexibility,” whether that is constructing a new low-barrier homeless shelter or finding an existing building to repurpose into one. Or it could be used to continue funding existing outlets. 

Mayor Deanna Reed voiced her preference for a low barrier shelter in the community at the last council meeting. Banks said creating such a year-round shelter has been a refrain from many stakeholders who have been discussing the issue over the last two years.

Many residents are struggling

More than 60% of Harrisonburg’s population are struggling as part of the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) population, and more than a third of Rockingham County residents are experiencing the same, according to a presentation by Harrisonburg United Way. 

“It’s no doubt that the ALICE population is increasing,” said Jo Benjamin, the organization’s coordinator of community impact.

She identified some key statewide trends that also affirmed that the cost of living is increasing for ALICE households and that worker vulnerability is increasing while wages stagnate in ALICE jobs.

She also made a clear distinction between a household’s survival and stability. Many ALICE households struggle to pay for essentials such as housing, child care, transportation, health care and phone bills. Those considered in the “stability” category can afford those basics and put at least 10% of their yearly income into savings. 

And while some ALICE households make enough to survive, they’re only a car accident or medical emergency away from poverty, she said.

“To have enough money to put 10% into savings bumps people up into stability so they have a cushion of savings to lean back on in times of crisis,” Benjamin said.

Harrisonburg United Way partnered with the United Ways of Front Royal-Warren County and the Northern Shenandoah Valley to issue a COVID-19 Impact Survey in November of 2020 to complement that pre-pandemic data. The survey responses, of which more than half came from Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, spelled out a few key trends:

  • COVID’s effects hit ALICE households harder as chronic stress and collective trauma compounds financial struggles.
  • ALICE workers are more vulnerable to the virus because essential workers in front line positions have lower wages and many don’t have the option to work remotely or from home.
  • ALICE families with children struggle more, especially as most schools shifted to virtual learning last year, and there were limited childcare options forcing parents to choose between going to work and staying home.

Since Jan. 1, the United Way has also worked to enact a coordinated care referral network, called Unite Virginia. It works with nonprofits in the area like People Helping People and Mercy House, Inc., to connect vulnerable populations with services about which they might not know.

Benjamin said they’ve identified housing as the No. 1 need of Harrisonburg residents this year.

“There’s a form on the website for assistance, and I see them in my email and every single day there’s requests for help paying rent and eviction protection,” Benjamin said.

Council member Chris Jones suggested that the city and United Way and other social services organizations come up with ways to “create more synergy between the business community and the nonprofits.”

“We gotta get some more action items when it comes to housing, child care, and transportation,” Jones said. “It can’t all fall on the city, and it can’t all fall on the nonprofit community.”

Benjamin agreed and praised area child care services that stayed flexible and open during the pandemic.

“We think of child care as the business that makes all other businesses possible,” Benjamin said. “When you’re a working parent, having a safe, quality place for your kids to go makes it all happen, so they literally keep our economy running.”

Part of the presentation to the Harrisonburg City Council on July 27 shows the income brackets for the ALICE population.

Jail official faces council

Middle River Regional Jail superintendent Jeffery Newton sought to head off concerns from council members, who have expressed public skepticism about multi-million-dollar expansion plans for the facility.

The jail authority board has, at least for the time being, backed off a proposal for a $96.5 million expansion. At its June 2 meeting, the board passed a motion to renovate and add support services facilities at a total cost of no more than $14.5 million to add 30,000 additional square feet.

It would include a new medical unit, expansion of the administration offices, the kitchen,and warehouse spaces, as well as a renovation to the core mechanical systems of the jail, including the HVAC and lighting systems. 

The reduced expansion plan still requires approval from four of the five member jurisdictions that contribute to the jail: Staunton, Waynesboro, Augusta and Rockingham Counties, and Harrisonburg. Because they first need that approval from the board of local and regional jails, Newton said “no item will be on the jail authority’s agenda that is related to this project” at the board’s Aug. 3 meeting and he didn’t expect any action before the following meeting, Oct. 5. 

Two council members — Jones and Laura Dent — expressed concerns over contributing more money to a jail that has seen its overall population decline over the past few months after being 300 inmates over capacity when the expansion plan was first proposed. 

“My problem is you are budgeting and anticipating on numbers that really are ghost numbers,” Jones said. 

Newton said the system between the local and regional jails and the Department of Corrections is “fundamentally flawed.” He said as of July 15, 4,000 state Department of Corrections inmates were being housed at local and regional jails instead of state prisons. At Middle River, that number fluctuates from between 90 and 110, he said.

And while Jones and Dent agreed certain parts of the plan — such as a new medical unit and the mechanical system renovations — were necessary, they said they couldn’t support spending more taxpayer money when the incarceration rate in Harrisonburg also has gone down.

“It’s not even reflective of our community,” Jones said. “Our community is very agreeable to the idea of restorative justice and I don’t think anybody in Harrisonburg wants more jail space.”

Dent said it would be essentially subsidizing the other localities when Harrisonburg has the lowest incarceration rate of the five who govern the regional jail. Of the current 795 inmates at Middle River, 37 are from Harrisonburg.

“That’s partly due to some of the successful programs we have like the crisis intervention team that diverts people with mental health issues from ever joining the criminal justice system in the first place,” Dent said. “Or at the tail end, at the drug court.”

Reed echoed Dent’s praises of the city’s rehabilitation programs.

“It’s unfortunate that we have a hell of a contract with y’all, that is crap for us,” Reed said. “It is, unfortunately, because I think we’re doing good things that are helping our numbers stay down.”

Also in the meeting:

  • The council unanimously approved a boundary line adjustment between the city and Rockingham County in order to give the family that owns Mulligan’s Golf Center the ability to finish renovating and move into their house next door.
  • The council approved a resolution to allow issuing up to $127.5 million in general obligation bonds that will finance construction of the new high school and the eastern source supply project and for the issuance of up to $62.5 million for the potential refinancing of existing bonds to lower future debt service costs.
  • Council appointed Jody Johannessen to the Harrisonburg Redevelopment Housing Authority and Barry Kelley to the Ordinance Advisory Committee.

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