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Community leaders explore solutions for Harrisonburg's unhoused

Sandy Mongold and Deanna Reed.jpg
Calvin Pynn
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Sandy Mongold (l) and Mayor Deanna Reed listen to a speaker at Monday's forum

Dozens of homeless people in Harrisonburg suddenly have nowhere to go. Mayor Deanna Reed gathered leaders from organizations around Harrisonburg and Rockingham County to figure out a way to help the city's unhoused population until Open Doors’ thermal shelters can open in November. WMRA’s Calvin Pynn reports.

Harrisonburg’s only year-round, low barrier shelter Open Doors has been without a permanent home for much of this year. The facilities it’s been using on the campus of James Madison University had to close a week ago to make way for incoming students. So now, Open Doors is again looking for a place. For April Giles, leaving meant being uprooted without a destination.

APRIL GILES: We not only had to get ourselves out of the shelter, we have to take everything we own. We don’t have storage units, a lot of us just have trash bags. So that’s stressful.

Giles was one of several homeless people in Harrisonburg who protested outside city hall last week after the shelter closed. She called for the city and anyone else to help in any way they could.

GILES: That’s the thing with Open Doors, we understand it’s not their fault. But it would be nice if somebody – them or other groups – could come together and help us at least, like, with a restructuring plan to ease us in this transition – tents, duffle bags, anything like that.

Monday morning, community leaders around Harrisonburg met in the city’s council chambers to do exactly that, invited by Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed.

DEANNA REED: Thank you, everyone, for coming out to take part in this discussion…

More than 50 people from various nonprofits, churches, and other organizations across Harrisonburg showed up.

REED: Not only is this a city challenge, it’s a community challenge. And so it’s us – it’s the city, it’s the county, it’s the businesses, it’s the faith community. And I have invited everyone from each sector…

The good news is that a permanent shelter is on the horizon. The city purchased a property earlier this summer owned by Shenandoah Presbytery church on North Main Street. But the $4 million investment will require extensive renovations, and it will be more than a year until that shelter can open.

REED: But it’s gonna take all of us coming together and filling in the gap until we can get our shelter built.

Open Doors has has been looking for a building to serve as a shelter for the last several years, moving from the former Red Front grocery store building and now, from JMU’s campus. But those were only temporary options, so that search has been constant.

Graham Witt is the organization’s chair.

GRAHAM WITT: We continue that search today. We have visited almost half a dozen, and have several more that we’re going to look at that are possible. But, as of right now, we’re faced with the reality that we do not have an adequate building that is temporary, but fixed.

In the meantime, Open Doors opted to run their thermal shelters in absence of a more immediate solution, relying on a network of churches in Harrisonburg to provide space for the homeless to sleep. This year, those shelters will accept guests from November 5 through April 3.

WITT: It’s the least favorite thing we do, which is to pack up a shelter every week and move from church to church to church. It isn’t easy, it isn’t fun, but it’s more than necessary and we’re willing to do that.

Open Doors had only operated a thermal shelter through the winter in its 15 years of operation, but complications at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the apparent need for a year-round shelter.

WITT: Believe me when I say we’re still looking for a temporary fixed shelter. It provides better services for our guests, less strain on our staff, and provides more continuity for this entire process.

While that covers several months in the time leading up to the city’s permanent shelter, it leaves an almost three-month gap until the thermal shelters can open. Mayor Reed asked if any of the churches hosting the thermal shelters could possibly open earlier this year.

REED: Open Doors was very sensitive about asking that because they didn’t want to stretch the churches more. But I’m asking.

Some Harrisonburg churches are currently offering daytime aid for the homeless, while others out in the county said they’d be willing to volunteer as a shelter if the city could help with transportation. The Salvation Army will also begin to accept guests in the coming weeks and Mercy House has housing vouchers they are ready to use.

But that still rules out options that are both immediate and low barrier.

SANDY MONGOLD: All the homeless are my kids and most of them call me “mama,” so I’m here to fight for them.

Sandy Mangold was among several homeless people from Harrisonburg who attended the meeting. She asked for the city to allow space for them to camp until they could get a roof over their heads.

MONGOLD: We have nowhere to go through the night. So someone could volunteer a piece of land, put a circus tent up. We’ve been sleeping together for two years now, so that’s not a problem.

Some community leaders agreed with the idea, although ultimately, homeless campgrounds in Harrisonburg won’t be an option due to city ordinances, and because finding an indoor shelter is the priority, as city spokesperson Michael Parks explained.

MICHAEL PARKS: The reason for that is it’s safer, it’s more secure for the guests, and it helps protect the health and wellness of individuals.

Witt said that once they find a building, Open Doors could start operating a shelter within two weeks.

Calvin Pynn is a radio reporter, writer, and photographer based in Harrisonburg, Virginia.