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Freezing temps add pressure to Shenandoah Valley housing crisis

Valley Mission, a private shelter for unhoused people in Staunton. Executive director Susan Richardson said average lengths of stays have grown immensely since the pandemic.
Henry Brannan / VPM News / WMRA
Valley Mission, a private shelter for unhoused people in Staunton. Executive director Susan Richardson said average lengths of stays have grown immensely since the pandemic.

As winter arrives in the Shenandoah Valley, people experiencing homelessness are caught between dropping temperatures and soaring housing costs. WMRA's rural health reporter Henry Brannan has more.

By Nov. 29, Lee was still about $750 behind on that month’s rent. He pays $1,500 a month to live in one of Staunton’s cheapest motels, and in less than a week December rent was due.

“Normally, if I can come up with most of the money, they let it slide until next month,” the 58-year-old said. “Seems like I never get caught up.”

He never saw himself living in a motel — but with a fixed limited income from Social Security benefits, a small pension, as well as having epilepsy and a back injury that makes it nearly impossible to work — he can't afford anywhere else. VPM News/WMRA are not using his real name because his housing situation is at risk.

The former James Madison University janitor was born in Elkton and has lived around the Shenandoah Valley his whole life. But in July, he could no longer afford rent where he lived with his longtime girlfriend, their two cats and roommates. The couple ended up at the motel.

Adding to his fears, temperatures in the Shenandoah Valley have dropped, with November’s average low hovering in the 20s. The couple has been unsheltered in the winter before, and Lee’s afraid of repeating that.

“People don't understand,” he said. “They should just stay outside for a couple hours and think how it is for people that don't have a place.”

A growing problem

There were 6,529 people experiencing homelessness in Virginia in 2022, the most recent data available, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That’s about a 10% jump from 2018.

In Virginia, regional data is collected by groups called continuums of care. They’re made of various public and private organizations, including local government departments and nonprofit homeless services providers.

The northern half of the Shenandoah Valley is covered by the Western Virginia Continuum of Care, which stretches from northwestern Virginia’s border with Maryland down to the bottom of Rockingham County.

There are 321 people experiencing homelessness in that continuum, a 2023 point-in-time count found. Point-in-time counts are conducted by a mix of continuum staffers and volunteers who go around the region counting people experiencing homelessness on a specific day to get a better picture of the problem.

However, Kaitlin Heatwole of the Western Virginia Continuum of Care wrote in an email to VPM News/WMRA that number was likely an undercount, because of bad weather on the day data was collected.

Valley Homeless Connection covers Augusta, Rockbridge, Bath and Highland counties, as well as Staunton, Waynesboro, Lexington and Buena Vista. The organization, which does not have a website, did not return requests for comment by publication time.

Blue Ridge Continuum of Care counted 334 homeless people in Alleghany County, Botetourt County, Craig County, Roanoke County, and the cities of Covington, Roanoke and Salem.

“Normally, if I can come up with most of the money, they let it slide until next month. ... Seems like I never get caught up.” —Lee, a Staunton resident

Despite the lack of regional data, homeless service providers, housing experts and people experiencing homelessness told VPM News/WMRA that situations like Lee’s are common in the Shenandoah Valley.

“We've seen an increase in demand for services really post-pandemic,” said Nate Riddle. “We’re now serving a population that we haven't historically.”

Riddle is executive director of Valley Open Doors, a Harrisonburg-based low-barrier warming shelter and homeless services provider. Last winter, Open Doors served 172 people and the second-most common place they came from was motels, only behind the number of people who came from being unsheltered.

Riddle said that high rents, security deposits, credit checks and pet bans in traditional housing make motels a paradoxically common last resort for people despite the high costs.

“Some of those life circumstances that are things that they didn't do, but that happened to them, that maybe doesn't affect their eligibility for our services,” he said. “But it affects eligibility for long-term solutions.”

Susan Richardson, executive director of the Valley Mission in Staunton, said the number of people that the shelter serves has remained steady for most of the 12 years she has run it.

But lately, she has seen other metrics worsen: “Average length of stay prior to COVID was about six months. But now we're talking a year, year and a half.”

Richardson attributes this to landlords significantly raising rents to gain back losses after the end of the eviction moratorium. And this has put the people she serves in a drastically worse spot than years prior.

“Not only do our folks now have the underlying issues that they had prior to COVID — especially if they're not able to work — but now the rent is just exorbitantly more expensive,” she said. “And so it really puts people in a tough situation, especially those who are on disability or Social Security, because they simply can't afford those rental prices.”

And she isn’t alone in that analysis according to Lance Barton, executive director of the Staunton-Augusta-Waynesboro Habitat for Humanity.

Average home prices jumped 70% between 2018 and 2023 to $260,250, as reported by Habitat. U.S. home prices only increased one-third to $513,400 during the same period, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

And Barton said soaring home prices don’t just impact buyers.

“As house prices go up, rentals go up,” he said. “Rentals can even go up more than house prices, because of the demand basis of it.”

The monthly per-capita income in Staunton is $2,882 according to Census Bureau data. That leaves $865 for rent for people who spend 30% of their pre-tax income on rent, as Experian recommends. (Per-capita income includes children in the total population it averages.)

There were no homes or apartments for rent under $900 on Zillow in Staunton when VPM News/WMRA checked on Dec. 8. Apartments.com had two. Staunton’s population is about 26,000.

Roughly 11% of those people are in poverty, meaning they make $15,225 or less a year if they’re a single adult. That puts 30% of their monthly income at $422.

In Harrisonburg, Nate Riddle said the end of many pandemic-era benefit programs has compounded the impacts of inflation. He noted that mass Medicaid removals and SNAP food assistance cuts,which came with the end of various state and federal programs, are leaving families operating on razor-thin margins.

“We're still seeing the effects — and I think some of it's still invisible — of the COVID relief wrap-up,” he said.

Those programs kept millions of Americans out of poverty before they were ended, according to analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, a-left-leaning think tank.

There were no homes or apartments for rent under $900 on Zillow in Staunton when VPM News/WMRA checked on Dec. 8.

Cold is life-threatening

While the Valley’s affordability crisis pushes people who never expected to be homeless into previously unimaginable circumstances all year long, the arrival of cold weather has only made things more dire.

Like Lee, 67-year-old Lownie Elijah has deep roots in the Valley. He moved to Staunton to help take care of his newly born granddaughter. Two decades and nine more grandchildren later, he’s living at the Valley Mission. A series of economic blows, compounded by a debilitating back injury, forced him and his fiancée out of their apartment.

“When COVID hit and everything just got all out of proportion,” Elijah said. “I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, me and my fiancée.”

The mission and a warming shelter in Waynesboro are the only things keeping him from the cold now.

“If it wasn't for the WARM shelter and the Valley Mission, actually, we [would] have to stay in the woods in the tents. And I really can't explain it, it’s awful,” he said. “God must know that we're going to need these two.”

While at the mission, Elijah’s met people who don’t live there, opting instead to live in the woods on the edge of town, even as temperatures drop.

Richardson, who runs the shelter, guessed there could be as many as 20 people living in that situation, though she added it’s hard to know.

The Shenandoah Valley is one of the coldest parts of Virginia, with average lows about 10 degrees Fahrenheit colder than Charlottesville, Richmond and Arlington in November.

Jan Dutton is CEO of the World Climate Service, a Charlottesville-based entity that provides long-range forecasts and climate risk tools to inform commodity traders.

“Because [in] portions of the valley, the altitude is a little bit higher … it’s a little bit cooler than Charlottesville,” he said. “More than a little bit cooler than a place like Richmond.”

In practice, that looks like lows approaching zero. Last December, temperatures in Staunton dropped as low as 1 degree F, according to historical weather data from climate data company, Weather Underground.

According to Dr. William Brady, a professor of emergency medicine at UVA's School of Medicine, sustained exposure to low temperatures is extremely dangerous.

“Even temperatures as high as 40 degrees could be dangerous for someone like that who's consistently out in that kind of cold temperature,” he said.

Prolonged exposure can cause three main medical problems.

Trenchfoot

Trenchfoot is the most common and occurs when tissue in the foot starts to break down due to significant time in wet and cold shoes. Brady said the condition “increases the risk of significant infections that, if untreated, could ultimately result in loss of the foot due to deeper infections.”

The problem is especially common in people experiencing homelessness.

Hypothermia and frostbite

Hypothermia or frostbite are two serious cold-related medical problems. Hypothermia is when tissue is damaged by freezing temperatures; frostbite is when your body temperature drops below 95 F. Brady cautioned that while the pair are real dangers especially to people experiencing homelessness, temperatures aren’t consistently low enough for him to see them frequently.

But they can be deadly. In his 35 years practicing medicine, Brady has seen 10 to 20 people die cold-related deaths.

VPM News/WMRA reached out to the Central Shenandoah Health District, Western Virginia Continuum of Care and Virginia State Medical Examiner’s Office looking for data on how many people experiencing homelessness die of cold-related causes each year in Virginia.

None collect that data, citing significant difficulties in tracking and classification. They also don’t collect data on deaths of people experiencing homelessness for the same reasons.

In an email to VPM News/WMRA, Kaitlin Heatwole of the Western Virginia Continuum of Care wrote that 12% of homeless people included in the 2023 point-in-time count reported experiencing “hypothermia/heatstroke.”

Nate Riddle said it’s impossible to know the scale of deaths of people experiencing homelessness in the Shenandoah Valley. That said, he knows of three deaths in Harrisonburg over the last year — though he did not know their causes of death.

The Virginia State Medical Examiner’s Office did provide VPM News/WMRA data on how many hypothermia-related deaths have occurred in Virginia over the last five years: fewer than 30 people a year.

But the state could not definitively say whether any had been unhoused.

In an email, VDH forensic epidemiologist Kathrin Hobron wrote, “Yes, some of those deaths may be among homeless populations, but I just can't confidently say which ones because of the way we collect the data.”

Brady said people can minimize the risk of cold-related problems by wearing weather-appropriate clothing; staying aware of body temperature, especially extremities like fingers, toes, genitals, nose and ears; and watching out for friends and family who are outside in the cold, especially when intoxicants are involved.

Providers are asking for changes

But what do Virginians experiencing homelessness do when their living outside is seen as normal?

Experts VPM News/WMRA talked to suggested broad, long-term solutions aimed at addressing key causes of homelessness.

Riddle drew hope from the groundbreaking of the Homeless Services Center, a new hub for homeless services in Harrisonburg. He hopes the center will allow providers to work together more effectively to treat the range of issues people face.

“Our folks aren't just experiencing homelessness,” he said. “Often they're often experiencing substance use, mental health, physical health conditions and various things that take many different organizations.”

Richardson, who runs the Valley Mission, sees expanding regional public transit options as a tool to help some able-bodied people experiencing homelessness make enough money to survive in the Valley’s increasingly expensive cities.

“There are really great paying jobs in our community, particularly those that are factory-related. So it’s possible for folks who are employable … to earn a very good income,” she said. “I believe one of the barriers to that is adequate and reliable transportation to somewhere like McKee or Hershey or wherever there are the higher-paying jobs.”

Barton, of Habitat, said that while Staunton is already in favor of affordable housing, density and long-term incentives will help turn hopes into reality around the valley.

“Allowing more density is one of the primary keys. You can build twice as many houses with R3 zoning as you can with R2,” he said. “And when you can build 22 houses instead of 10, you'd be amazed how [much] less expensive it is.”

But with housing prices increasing to the point Habitat has gone from serving people at 30% to 50% of the average income in the area to serving people all the way up to 80% and 90% because they’re “in the same predicament people 30% to 50% were in just five years ago,” Barton said real change has to come from the public.

“It goes back to that conversation that's happening around the dinner table,” he said. “When the conversation becomes this much a part of normal life, [cities are] going to have to take action.”

Despite the array of solutions though, none will solve the housing crisis today, and Virginians experiencing homelessness have the whole winter ahead of them.

Shenandoah Valley insecurity resources

  • Valley Homeless Connection: 540-213-7347
  • Blue Ridge Continuum of Care: 2-1-1 if you need assistance accessing food, clothing or other types of financial assistance
  • Western Virginia Continuum of Care: 540-271-1701 if you are experiencing homelessness or will lose housing in the next 10-14 days
Henry Brannan covers rural health care in the Shenandoah Valley and Charlottesville area for WMRA and VPM News. The position is in partnership with Report for America.