Batten Hosts Housing and Homelessness Symposium

by Elena Weissmann, MPP 2014

On November 1st, Paul Martin teamed up with the Charlottesville Housing Advisory Committee to host an all-day symposium about Charlottesville’s issues of housing and homelessness. Several Batten students joined community activists and representatives from the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homelessness, Virginia Supportive Housing, the City of Charlottesville Department of Neighborhood Development Services and Department of Social Services, and the Albemarle Housing Improvement Program for a series of presentations and panels addressing Charlottesville’s continuing struggle with homelessness.

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Participants hear from Kaki Dimock of TJACH, about homelessness in Charlottesville.

The Great Hall was filled with lively discussion on Friday as the participants discussed Charlottesville’s emerging emphasis on “housing first” — a policy goal of providing rapid supportive housing for those in need rather than using housing as a reward for participation in prerequisite services.

Charlottesville Mayor Satyendra Huja welcomed the guests, and briefly discussed the success of the Crossings model. He concluded by reminding the participants of the universal goal that “Everyone deserves a roof over their heads.” Following his welcome, TJACH Executive Director Kaki Dimock took to the podium to discuss the physical effects of homelessness, both directly on individuals and indirectly on the city’s social fabric. She spoke about the social tendency to draw conclusions based on what we see and imagine despite the contradicting convictions wrought through our emotions. Kaki focused on the humanness of homelessness, reminding participants of the universal struggles these individuals face: fatigue, hunger, embarrassment, and social isolation. The pervasive problem of avoiding the issue of homelessness altogether, Kaki said, stems from our inability to recognize these human elements and the actual people behind our impressions of homelessness.

Participants also heard from City service providers Melissa Thackston and Kathy McHugh (from the Departments of Neighborhood Development Services and Housing, respectively) about Charlottesville’s housing problems and prospects. The presentations drew from the May 2013 Coalition for Housing Opportunity series of reports, which detailed the need for the newly formed coalition, its objectives, and Charlottesville’s housing challenges. Thackston spoke about the majority of Charlottesville residents who spend over one-third of their income on housing, and the challenges this presents for nutrition, quality of life, educational achievement, and ability to save for the future. Her presentation underscored the importance of housing as a foundation for many other community goals. To complement this presentation, McHugh narrated the institutional challenges faced by the City to provide supportive housing, including limited land and profit-seeking developers, and legal limitations imposed at the city and state levels. Her presentation drew many questions from the audience about the City’s ability to overcome these challenges through policy and leadership, which was certainly apt discourse for the Great Hall.

The symposium also included a discussion of the economic impacts of homelessness, in which presenters illustrated the relative costs of palliative services such as ER visits, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens as they compare to the cost of preventative services such as the provision of supportive housing like the Crossings. They demonstrated how the Crossings halved the cost of sustaining the lives of each formerly homeless individual, at the very least. The “Housing First” goal was also expounded upon in other presentations that focused on the City’s ability to create more than a social net, and to focus on moving people toward housing services. Some of the challenges in reaching this goal are derived from gaps in the provider spectrum (either through funding, timing, or capacity), which points to the need for an inter-agency coalition to identify and account for these gaps.

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Participants mingle and discuss the prospects of housing and homelessness in Charlottesville.

There were several other equally compelling presentations included in the symposium. Each of the presenters was visibly passionate about ending homelessness in the Charlottesville area, and the participants left with a contextualized understanding of the policy and leadership necessities for achieving this goal.

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