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Shenandoah Valley agencies are embracing Permanent Supportive Housing

Screen Capture / VPM News Focal Point

Permanent Supportive Housing

The approach provides support and assistance for people to rebuild their lives.

Staunton-Augusta-Waynesboro Housing hosted a talk last week about the role of a housing approach called Permanent Supportive Housing in ending chronic homelessness in the southern Shenandoah Valley.

Lydia Campbell, community-based services manager at Valley Community Services Board, hosted the event with two colleagues.

“PSH is intended to serve a community's most vulnerable individuals,” she said. “Folks who have pretty complex situations that go along with their experience of homelessness.”

The approach, as previously reported by VPM News Focal Point, helps people live in rental units leased by private landlords and has two components: Rental assistance payments to help the person afford the unit; and support services to help renters adjust to being housed, avoid eviction and manage any disabilities or mental health challenges.

Valley Community Services Board houses 97 households across three programs in the Staunton-Augusta-Waynesboro area as well as Highland County.

According to data from the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, in the 180 days before being housed in PSH units, participants spent on average: 89 days homeless, 26 days in treatment and seven days in jail. About 4 out of 5 participants didn’t spend a single night in stable housing.

To qualify, participants must meet certain federal or local criteria illustrating housing instability and disability or qualifying diagnoses. The client then pays 30% of any income they have — whether from a job or programs like Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance.

Between 2010 and 2020, Virginia saw a decrease in the number of formally counted people experiencing homelessness and an increase in the number of people housed by PSH, according to a 2022 report commissioned by Virginia’s General Assembly.

The report found the two numbers had almost met in the middle. But the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, who created the report, has also estimated that yearly homeless counts typically underestimate the number of people who experienced homelessness that year by a factor of four to five.

Homelessness has also increased in the commonwealth since the COVID-19 pandemic. Families hit by initial pandemic-related hardships faced a second wave as pandemic-era benefit programs ended, bringing a rise in poverty in Virginia and around the country.

Meanwhile, real median income dropped and home prices jumped, impacting renters particularly hard.

That rise has been particularly stark in the Valley, with housing prices in Staunton and Waynesboro rising by about 70% between 2018 and 2023, according to analysis by the Staunton-Augusta-Waynesboro Habitat for Humanity.

While the Staunton-Augusta-Waynesboro region and Rockbridge, Bath and Highland counties don’t have data for how many people were experiencing homelessness five years ago, the number rose from 2023 to 2024. Similarly, the northern half of the Valley saw a more than 50% rise in homelessness between 2017 and 2022, according to data from the Western Virginia CoC.

Valley Community Service Board’s Lydia Campbell said the underlying issue driving this comes down to supply and demand.

“We really learned through the pandemic that having [more] money for homeless assistance in this community than ever before was still not enough,” she said. “It wasn't necessarily that we didn't have enough money — we just didn't have enough places to spend it.”

Data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis backs Campbell up. In the decade leading up to 2023, when the most recent numbers are available, the population of the United States grew by 5.8%, and Virginia’s grew by 5.6%.

Facing an influx of wealthy retirees from Charlottesville, Richmond and the D.C. area, Staunton and Waynesboro grew by 7.5% and 9.5%, respectively, according to VPM News/WMRA analysis of Federal Reserve of St. Louis data.

But housing construction in the area did not grow to accommodate that spike during the same period. This left a scarcity of units for renters — especially for working-class people in the Valley.

Cassie Post Wimer is a case manager for the PSH team at Valley Community Services Board. She said the scarcity has made finding housing difficult.

“Yesterday, the team and I, we were doing a housing search,” she said. “We found one unit in Waynesboro and one unit in Staunton that was less than $1,000 in our entire search yesterday. So there are things out there, but not enough.”

The team is mostly limited to using the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Fair Market Rent threshold for the region, which is $981 including utilities for a studio apartment.

Despite that challenge, the team does succeed in housing people. Once they’re in, clients have access to a wide variety of supports to help them stay there.

“It's teaching the client, this is where your trash goes. This is how you communicate with your landlord. If you have a maintenance concern, this is how you report it," said Post Wimer. “Helping to make sure that they understand what needs to be done in order to be successful at the specific place that they're at.”

That support ranges from help applying for benefits to furnishing clients’ apartments, according to Crystal Stuck, VCSB’s homeless and special needs housing supervisor.

Once housed, clients pay about one-third of any income they have — whether from a job or programs like Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance. For many, their rent and utilities end up at about $200 a month, according to Campbell.

At a statewide level, PSH programs have housed more than 1,000 Virginians, with 89% remaining stably housed for at least one year, according to DBHDS data. The agency’s analysis concluded that Virginia needs 5,000 more PSH units to address the “critical housing and support needs of the most vulnerable homeless and institutionalized individuals with serious mental illness.”

While the state pays about $13,000 a year per PSH household for rent and support costs, research shows the programs bring downstream savings. In Virginia, 202 people were discharged from the state hospital into PSH units. This led to a 76% decrease in state hospital utilization the year after clients moved in, resulting in $12.2 million in avoided costs.

The ultimate goal of the program according to Campbell is to get people back on their feet. Campbell said the units don’t solve all the clients’ problems, but they do give people a foundation to rebuild their lives from.

“Think about it, how it's really hard if you don't have a job, and you want to work, but you don't have a place to go home to and sleep every night or go take a shower or wash your clothes,” she said to the audience. “Housing gives them the foundation to start working on all the other aspects of their lives that they were not able to because they just didn't have a place to land.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing homelessness or housing instability in the Shenandoah Valley, call Valley Homeless Connection at 540-213-7347.

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.