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:
- Fourteen percent (35) of people experiencing homelessness were children.
- Eighty-four percent (211) were over the age of 24, and 1.2 percent (3) were between the ages of 18 and 24.
- There were 186 people experiencing homelessness in adult-only households, accounting for 74.4% percent of the homeless population. Most (97.9%) were over the age of 24. Two percent were between 18 and 24 (4).
- There were 52 people in families with children experiencing homelessness, representing 20.8 percent of the homeless population. Of people in families with children, 67.3 percent (35) were children under the age of 18, 32.7 percent were over 24, and none were between the ages of 18 and 24.
- There were 27 veterans experiencing homelessness. All 27 veterans were homeless in households without children. Seven veterans were chronically homeless and two were unsheltered.
- There were 56 individuals in adult-only households with chronic patterns of homelessness.
- There were no chronically homeless families with children.
- There were 3 unaccompanied homeless youth between the ages of 18 and 24 (all were sheltered).
This same report indicated:
- Between 2020 and 2021, homelessness among individuals decreased by 7 percent.
- Homelessness among people in families with children counted on a single night decreased by 17.5% between 2020 (63) and 2021 (52).
- The number of homeless family households decreased by 29.2% between 2020 (24) and 2021 (17).
- Between 2020 and 2021, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the Roanoke Region (including Alleghany County) decreased by 9.4%. (276 in 2020 and 250 in 2021).
- Homelessness decreased among people staying in unsheltered locations by 60.0%. (30 in 2020 and 12 in 2021).
- A trend of decreasing numbers since 2012 in the Roanoke Region shows that homelessness has decreased by 55.4% (561 in 2012 and 250 in 2021).
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