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Posted on April 26, 2021 at 2:19 PM by Melinda Mayo
No doubt, you’ve seen them. Sitting around Market Square, asking for money near the intersection of Franklin Road and Brandon Avenue, sleeping on the sidewalk near the downtown post office, camped out near Airport Drive, or traveling the streets between the Rescue Mission and RAM House—the unhoused. Some are homeless by choice, many find themselves living outdoors as the result of mental health issues, substance use, escaping an abusive environment, loss of income, or some combination of all of the above.
Who Are They?
Each year, there is a count completed in our community of those currently living unhoused. The most recent count revealed 250 such individuals, with 238 of those residing temporarily in one of our local shelters.
According to the report generated from this most recent count:
This same report indicated:
A Helping Hand
Roanoke is a generous place. Someone who finds themself unhoused can access services ranging from food to shelter, and from medical care to peer support. Local non-profits, social services agencies and others join with local and state government to provide many of these services. A few of these include the RAM House, the Rescue Mission, the Salvation Army, United Way, the City’s Homeless Assistance Team (HAT), the Least of These Ministries, ARCH Services, Roanoke’s Department of Planning, Building and Development, and others.
Many of these participate with the Blue Ridge Interagency Council on Homelessness, the entity responsible for conducting the annual count and generating the referenced report.
Living outdoors is not a desirable situation for anyone. As noted, many of those doing so are not in a positon to make a better choice. There is no question that, from time to time, the presence of those living outdoors causes issues. These include the presence of litter and debris, unsanitary and unsightly living conditions, paraphernalia from drug use, discomfort to those in proximity and, on a few rare occasions, acts of intimidation or violence.
So many ask, why not just make them leave or have them arrested? Roanoke has worked very hard to avoid punitive responses to those experiencing homelessness, and rather ensure there are solutions to the issues they face. The HAT and others can connect folks to temporary and permanent housing, and there are several entities that assist getting folks placed into substance treatment programs. But what if they can’t or won’t avail themselves of these programs? The reality is the courts have supported the notion that provided they are not doing anything illegal; sitting and sleeping on sidewalks cannot be prevented. Under certain circumstances, and with specific limitations, overnight sleeping can be prevented in parks. The basic rule is, if you or I can use, stop, or sit down in a space anytime of the day, then someone experiencing homelessness should be able to do so as well.
The presence of unhoused individuals, especially those living outdoors, makes people uncomfortable and it should. In Roanoke, we try hard to have that discomfort met with compassion rather than punishment. People are discouraged from providing money directly to those seeking help, but supporting the agencies that provide assistance instead. While not what we want to see around our City, these individuals need our understanding, our patience, and our help.
-- Bob Cowell
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