Residents in Harrisonburg plan to petition City Council to provide year-round shelter for people without access to housing. WMRA’s Bridget Manley reports.
REPORTER: What happens at night?
DAVE KNAPCYZK: At night? Well, at least it’s cool. (chuckles) But it’s rough when you sleep on the ground in a sleeping bag. It hurts, especially when I’ve got a lot of physical problems, and I wake up in pain, and it’s rough…
Dave Knapczyk was homeless and panhandling in Harrisonburg this summer during a crisis in the city that sparked weeks of meetings and discussions between city officials, business owners and those who work with the homeless population.
He’d panhandle to make a few dollars, and buy himself a cheeseburger at Burger King or sometimes splurge on a pair of jeans.
Now he’s part of a wider group of residents and those experiencing homelessness in the city who have assembled more than one thousand signatures on a petition demanding a low-barrier shelter in the city during warm months. The group plans to present the petition at Tuesday’s city council meeting.
A “low-barrier" shelter is a shelter that will house those without a place to stay, no matter the circumstances, like those who may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, those with criminal records, and those with pets. People who may be turned away from other shelters would be welcome and given a bed for the night.
Currently in Harrisonburg, Open Doors operates a low barrier shelter during the cold months - November through April - but there are no low barrier shelters during the summer months.
Harrisonburg reached crisis level this summer with many people sleeping on the lawn at Our Community Place at night. When it became apparent that O.C.P. was not able to handle the amount of people seeking a place to sleep, they were forced off the property and back into the shadows.
City residents are asking city council to pass a resolution to fund a low barrier shelter for 2021 in the months when Open Doors does not operate.
Michael Snell-Feikema is a member of Occupy Harrisonburg, and one of those who will be giving city council the petition signatures on Tuesday. He says that shelter should be a basic human right given to everyone.
MICHAEL SNELL-FEIKEMA: I think this is about recognizing the humanity of the people that are experiencing homelessness. And I think it’s really important to realize that when you don’t recognize the humanity of others, you’re dehumanizing not only them, but yourself. There’s a lot to be gained by taking the higher road on this.
MAYOR DEANNA REED: Although it may seem like the city is not doing enough or that we’re not doing anything, there’s layers of challenges that we’re faced with, and so, we have to work through that.
Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed has been working with city stakeholders over the last year to identify challenges that those experiencing homelessness face.
She says they meet once a month to talk and plan for real solutions that will help. She says they are coming up with possible solutions that will not only get people into shelters, but aim to treat the whole person and help sustain housing for the long run.
REED: Just last month we talked about the possibility of recovery houses, of more services for mental health and substance abuse, possible partnerships with hotels, we have discussed these things.
Bruce Bushing is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at James Madison University. He has been distributing the petition and gathering signatures in the hope that city council will take seriously the community support surrounding the idea of a low-barrier shelter.
BRUCE BUSHING: We’re trying to respect the process, and submitting a petition and circulating a petition is very respectful of the process. That’s as American as apple pie. We think that a number of members of city council’s hearts are in the right place, and so what we are asking for them is to follow up where we think their hearts are with specific action on this issue.
Mayor Reed says that city officials are not kicking the can down the road, but instead are trying to come up with real solutions behind the scenes that people might not see.
REED: I want to make sure that if we are building or putting together some type of facility for people to stay at, not only do they have a place to stay, but they’re able to get they help they need.
Meanwhile, Knapczyk’s situation has improved dramatically. After collecting hundreds of signatures downtown for the petition, he has found permanent shelter at an assisted living facility in Elkton. He’s proud to have helped collect signatures so that others don’t experience what he lived through this summer.
KNAPCZYK: You know, it’s amazing, how many people - when I presented this petition to people - there’s a lot of people who signed it, and they take pictures of it, and they want to share it with their friends. And then they ask me questions, why I’m homeless or what’s going on, and you’d be amazed how many people prayed with me. They’d say ‘can I pray with you?’ It’s just so cool.