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More Shenandoah Valley residents are experiencing homelessness

Matt Tibbles (left) and another volunteer walk through the woods near a camp of unhoused residents on Wednesday, Jan. 24. They're looking for people to survey.
Henry Brannan / WMRA / VPM News
Matt Tibbles (left) and another volunteer walk through the woods near a camp of unhoused residents on Wednesday, Jan. 24. They're looking for people to survey.

The latest point-in-time results come as home prices and rents skyrocket in the region.

The number of people experiencing homelessness in the upper Shenandoah Valley increased between 2023 and 2024, according to newly released data.

The results of a January count came at an April 11 event by the Western Virginia Continuum of Care. It found 373 people were experiencing homelessness within the CoC on the night of Jan. 24 and morning of Jan. 25, a 16% increase from last year.

WMRA/VPM News previously reported on volunteers in Harrisonburg during January’s Point in Time count, which helps regional partnerships like the CoC quantify homelessness by counting the number of unhoused people on a specific day.

Kaitlin Heatwole is in charge of the CoC’s data collection and analysis; she led the January count. While she said there can be variation in the totals year-to-year because of changes in weather and funding, the overall pattern is clear.

“The trend that we see is definitely a rise in homelessness overall,” she said, “and a rise in unsheltered homelessness.”

In addition to counting the number of people experiencing homelessness, the PIT count also collects data on people’s specific living situations, why they became homeless and more.

Heatwole said one of the most concerning findings this year is that 26% of people experiencing homelessness were unsheltered — meaning they were sleeping in tents, outdoors and other places not meant for habitation, as opposed to shelters and hotels.

That proportion is almost three times larger than five years ago. The rise comes amid a worsening housing crisis in the Shenandoah Valley as wealthy retirees move to the Valley and housing construction caters to them.

Over the last five years, home prices in Virginia rose 42% to $371,528, according to a January analysis of Zillow Home Values Index data by WMRA/VPM News.

But the six counties within the Western Virginia CoC — Clarke, Frederick, Page, Rockingham, Shenandoah and Warren — saw a cumulative average growth of 51%. Page County was hardest hit, with prices increasing by 66% to $260,566.

And as home prices rise, rents go with them.

The cost of affordable rental units has increased nearly 40% in both Harrisonburg and Winchester, and more than 50% in Page County over the last five years, WMRA/VPM News analysis of HUD Fair Market Rent data shows.

Fair Market Rent values reflect the average cost of affordable housing — as defined by HUD at 30% of income — in a given area, according to Virginia Housing. This has left more than 40% of renters in Winchester and Harrisonburg spending more than 30% of their income on rent, according to 2024 data from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

About 20% spend more than half of their income on rent.

According to Heatwole, data from the count shows that those price jumps are not only responsible for increases in homelessness, they have also pushed a new type of people onto the street.

While economic issues like losing a job or being paid poverty wages have always been a primary cause of homelessness, this year it was housing affordability that led the reasoning. And unhoused people being counted for the first time were more likely to be older and better educated.

“We're seeing a shift or a new population emerging of people who have been holding on, scraping things together, getting by for a while and then some straw breaks the camel's back,” Heatwole said. “We don't know necessarily what it was, but something happened to drop them into homelessness after a period of time of being able to hang on.”

When they can’t hold on any longer, they often come to Nate Riddle. He runs Open Doors, a low-barrier winter shelter and homeless services provider in Harrisonburg.

While the shelter served slightly fewer people during winter 2023-24 than the previous one, the 160 people they served had to use their services more than the 172 people served by the shelter in the 2022-23 season.

Riddle told WMRA/VPM News in December that demand started spiking during the pandemic. Economic pain caused by lost jobs was compounded when pandemic-era benefits began to be cut in the following years.

While providers agree homelessness is increasing, Heatwole said that it is not entirely clear by how much because of the count’s limitations.

The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development has estimated that once-yearly homeless counts can severely underestimate the number of people who experienced homelessness throughout that year.

The federal HUD’s definition of homelessness also excludes people who are staying with other households or in hotels they pay for, Heatwole said.

However, the Virginia Department of Education counts both doubled-up housing and staying in hotels as being unhoused. That led the agency’s statewide count of just unhoused students, which found 9,000 unhoused students, to be one-third higher than the roughly 6,700 total number of unhoused people the 2023 Point in Time count identified.

The local count also found racial disparities, with Black people experiencing homelessness at between two and four times the overall rate, depending on which part of the Valley they live in.

Whites and Latinos experience homelessness at slightly lower rates. The report looked at data for Black, white, Latino, multiracial and people of other backgrounds — a combination of Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander and Middle Eastern people grouped together “due to small sample sizes.”

The top five challenges people experiencing homelessness said they faced in getting housed again were:

  • Can’t find affordable housing.
  • Don’t have transportation.
  • Mental health.
  • Can’t find work.
  • Medical challenges.

Other notable findings include:

  • 3 in 10 people were chronically homeless.
  • 6 in 10 people are local.
  • 1 in 4 adults reported a serious mental illness.
  • 1 in 5 people were currently employed.
  • 1 in 6 adults identified as a survivor of domestic violence.
  • 1 in 7 adults reported a substance use disorder.
  • 1 in 7 people was a minor aged between 0 to 17.

Data for 2024 at the state and national levels are not yet available. In previous years, they have been released at the end of the year.

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.