People experiencing homelessness in the Valley are counted
Matt Tibbles is driving through the woods on the edge of Harrisonburg. “We know, just because of OCP, that there's a tent city out here,” he says, craning his neck and looking to the treeline.
OCP — Our Community Place — is a nonprofit homeless services provider in Harrisonburg, and Tibbles is its executive director.
“So we're driving around this gravel road, finding where the tents are.” He spots one about 75 feet off the road and adds, “... which, as is shown here, it's not near the road or anything like that. It's more toward the trees or just right inside the trees.”
Tibbles is looking for people experiencing homelessness to count and potentially survey them.
“We’re out visiting some of the tent cities,” he continues. “Trying to talk to our homeless population to gather as much data as we can to get an accurate count for the Western Virginia Continuum of Care of how many homeless people are here.”
The effort was a part of the Continuum of Care’s yearly Point in Time Count. It was conducted on the night of Jan. 24 and morning of Jan. 25 to approximate the number of unhoused people in the central and upper parts of the Shenandoah Valley.
Kaitlin Heatwole runs the count for the Continuum of Care as its homeless management information systems administrator.
“I'm the data and research person for this area,” she said. “And our Continuum of Care, or CoC, is the area from Harrisonburg to Winchester and all of the counties there, too. So Rockingham, Shenandoah, Page, Warren, Frederick and Clarke counties.”
CoCs are partnerships between nonprofit homeless service providers, local governments, businesses, schools and other institutions working together to address homelessness.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires that CoCs nationwide all conduct a count of unhoused people at the end of each January. The data paints a picture of homelessness in the U.S.
How it’s done and what it gathers
The Point in Time count has two components: a basic count and an in-depth survey.
The basic count includes people in emergency shelters, transitional housing and safe havens, as well as people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in places like encampments.
Alongside that data, identifying information like initials and birthdates are gathered and later compared with the surveys to avoid people being counted more than once
The survey had about 50 questions this year, all of them optional. HUD requires that the surveys assess whether the respondent meets HUD’s definition of homelessness, then collects basic biographical information including age, gender identity, racial and ethnic identity, veteran status and limited health and wellness information.
Individual CoCs are free to collect additional data, and the Western Virginia Continuum of Care does.
Those questions include why people are experiencing homelessness, what led people to their experience and what challenges they’re facing while experiencing homelessness.
“Also, what’s preventing them from finding more stable housing,” Heatwole said.
According to Heatwole, this data is collected “to figure out what's the unique experience of homelessness in the Shenandoah Valley and how can we better serve these people?” She said these data identify gaps in services and help providers address the crisis.
The count is done through a mixture of field outreach like what Tibbles was doing and outreach in places people experiencing homelessness often gather.
Mandie Bishop surveyed people from one of those places, Harrisonburg-based substance use recovery nonprofit Strength in Peers. Nowadays, she’s a program manager and certified peer recovery specialist there. But four years ago, she was on the other side of the count due to addiction.
“I found myself homeless at one point, living in a baseball dugout at an old middle school with my 5-month-old baby,” she said. “And that was one of my rock bottoms. That's when I really started reaching out for help, really needing to make changes in my life.”
She left Southwest Virginia to make that change. Four years later, she’s sober and said she appreciates the opportunity to put her experiences with addiction and homelessness to use by helping people in familiar situations.
“It also allows you to be able to spread a little bit of hope to other people that there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “You may have to work a little harder for it than other people do.”
This year, Chester was one of the people counted. He’s been unhoused for about a year and was staying at a church the night of the count through the Valley Open Doors emergency shelter program. VPM News and WMRA are using a pseudonym to protect his privacy.
The 59-year-old was born in Harrisonburg and has lived in the area since he was born. But it only took two hardships to change the course of the formerly prosperous financial adviser’s life.
First, a divorce rocked him. “I had a really nice house down in Elkton where my wife and I — ex-wife — lived. And it was a huge house. It was 5,000 square foot, it had a 20-by-40-foot in-ground pool. We had 2 acres of woods behind us,” he said. “I had to get rid of that.”
Then, his professional world was turned upside-down. “I had my licenses and I worked here in Harrisonburg for 34 years,” he said. But the first hint of trouble came when the company he worked at was purchased. That buyout was followed by two more, and, by the end of those, he was out of a job.
(VPM News/WMRA confirmed the majority of Chester’s story through U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission financial adviser listings, local property transfer records, Zillow home listings, bank closure notices and news articles.)
A growing problem and the regional housing crisis behind it
The local data from this year’s count is set to be released on April 11 in a public presentation, Heatwole said. In recent years, nationwide data from HUD has been released in December of the year it was gathered.
At a statewide level, homelessness levels in Virginia fell by one-third between 2007 — when HUD started collecting the data — and 2020 just before COVID cases spiked in the U.S. About 6,500 people were experiencing homelessness in 2020, HUD data show.
Nationally, homelessness also decreased during the same period, falling 10% to about 580,000 people.
But recently released national data from the 2023 count reveals that progress was entirely erased, with more than 650,000 Americans experiencing homelessness – the highest number on record and a 13% jump from 2020.
The trend wasn’t so stark in Virginia, homelessness increased 7% between 2017 and 2022. From 2022 to 2023, it increased 4%.
But not all regions within the commonwealth fared the same.
The Western Virginia CoC saw a more than 50% rise in homelessness between 2017 and 2022. (The 2023 count was hampered by an ice storm.)
Due to changes in funding allocated to conduct the count year-to-year and unexpected events like 2023’s ice storm, the count can be unreliable. But mirroring that local pattern, the number of people receiving services from the Western Virginia CoC consistently grew between 2014 when the data starts and 2022.
Data on housing affordability in the Shenandoah Valley provides the backstory of the rise.
Over the last five years, home prices in Virginia rose 42% compared to the U.S. rate of 49%, according to VPM News/WMRA analysis of Zillow Home Values Index data.
But the six counties within the Western Virginia CoC saw a cumulative average growth of 51%.
Page and Shenandoah counties were hardest hit, with prices increasing by 66% and 54%, respectively.
Lance Barton, executive director of the Staunton-Augusta-Waynesboro Habitat for Humanity, told VPM News/WMRA last month that he’s seen rents jump faster than home prices in his area, due to high demand and low supply of rental units.
But during that same five-year period that housing costs skyrocketed, wages only grew 4.5%, according to national data from the Federal Reserve of St. Louis. That wage growth was further undercut by inflation, with 2022 experiencing the highest rate the U.S. has seen since 1981.
In the Valley, the picture is particularly bleak. A shift towards building housing for wealthier people has left everyone else in a lurch, a 2024 Chmura Analytics report commissioned by Virginia Housing found. ”There is available housing, but workers' wages are too low to afford it,” it summarized.
Count volunteers see impacts of Shenandoah Valley housing crisis
Last week, Point in Time Count volunteers saw the human consequences of this crisis firsthand.
In Harrisonburg, Matt Tibbles of Our Community Place said he’s seen rises in the number of both younger and older people experiencing homelessness.
For older people, even slight rent increases can spell disaster because of the slow growth of the fixed incomes many rely on like Social Security or disability — incomes that are not keeping pace with inflation.
“If they're already close to the max in their budget, and the rent goes up even $25, $50, it may be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back,” Tibbles said.
More broadly, he said the recent end of many benefit programs the government started or enhanced during the early pandemic years has intensified hardship.
“We are definitely seeing people that have been housed, after about six to 12 months, now the evictions are setting in,” he said. “And those numbers are on the rise, too.”
The data backs that up. Late last year, the Census Bureau said the end of the expanded Child Tax Credit played a major role in poverty rising between 2021 and 2022 by the most it has in about 50 years.
Joe Fudge is outreach chairman of Arise, a homeless services provider in rural Page County where the Valley’s housing crisis is at its peak.
“[In] 2022 it was 41 families. Last year, it was 83 families,” said Fudge, referring to the number of families experiencing homelessness in the county.
Fudge says most families have “at least three people” on average, for a total of 200 to 250 people in the county of less than 25,000 people.
“Last year, we saw a 100% increase in the amount of people that we're helping that are homeless,” Fudge said. “That means they come into our doors and ask for help. So it's not a figure that I'm projecting – it's a real count. Last year, we served 13,208 meals; the year before was 7,000.”
Fudge sees these circumstances drive people to increasingly dispiriting situations.
“I had a tree cutter come in one day, and he had five kids and his wife,” Fudge said. “They were sleeping in their big car – they had like a Suburban – so those kids were standing there like cordwood, and they came out, they were all hungry, hungry, hungry.”
The story stuck with him not just because of the image but because it was the rare time he was able to help the father secure a job and housing for the family.
“I wish that happened every time. I wish it was always that good of a situation,” he said. “But in the four or five years I've been doing this, it's the only time that it's ever worked out like that.”
The county is nestled between Shenandoah National Park and the slopes of Massanutten, and it’s become a pressure cooker. On one hand, families want to stay in tight-knit communities they’ve often grown up and raised their families in, Fudge said.
But that hope is crushed by a near complete lack of affordable housing as wealthy people from the Washington, D.C., metro area scoop up homes at prices local families simply cannot afford, Fudge said: “And the affordable housing that is there is literally — you've got two years worth of wait time to get in it, and that's if you qualify for the standards.”
Data from recent counts backs this up, according to Heatwole. “We do ask people the ZIP code of the last place that they did have a permanent residence, and pretty consistently 90% of people who are homeless in our CoC are from our CoC,” she said. “Because even if they're homeless, that's still home.”
Fudge said the rural nature of the county defines it but also compounds housing issues, leaving residents in particularly difficult situations.
“The people in Page County survive by friendships with other people. And when they have money, they can get someone to drive them somewhere,” he said. But spotty cell coverage and spread-out towns mean that without a working car, a supportive community 15 miles down the road might as well be a world away.
Factors like high housing costs and lack of social services, transportation, jobs and emergency shelters all leave rural Virginians in particularly challenging situations, according to Heatwole.
“You can be trapped in a rural homeless setting with no way to get support, get services,” she said. “We have lots more unsheltered and informal homelessness in rural areas.”
An incomplete count
While data shows housing costs are skyrocketing around the Valley and homelessness is rising, the count doesn’t capture the extent.
Fudge says finding people is a challenge when what little stability they have depends on not being found.
“Law enforcement discourages them from having a tent city. You can't do it on national forest land, the city of Luray forbids it,” he said. “So these people are — I won't even go into where they are, but they're the unseen of Page County. Because, if they are seen, they will have a negative connection with law enforcement.”
People are particularly afraid of losing children to child protective services.
And while the number of people his organization serves has increased, Fudge said shame keeps people from acknowledging they’re homeless.
Similarly, some people Tibbles’ team in Harrisonburg tried to survey simply declined, rendering themselves uncounted.
“Some hesitate with the potential for an invasive question,” he said, citing the optional questions about adverse childhood experiences. Others fear data collected on them will later be used against them.
And while CoCs do cover the U.S. like puzzle pieces, not all CoCs have the same funding or organizational capacity. Many are administered by the state as part of what’s called the Virginia Balance of State CoC. Parts of this patchwork CoC, which includes the southern third of the Shenandoah Valley, may not have the resources to capture the extent of homelessness in their areas.
But maybe the most significant factor contributing to the undercount, is the HUD definition of homelessness, according to Heatwole. It excludes people in doubled-up housing situations and people living in motels paid for by anyone but social service providers.
“Maybe they lost their housing but then they're crashing with a friend or couchsurfing for a long term,” she said. “That still doesn't count, according to HUD’s definition.”
In contrast, she said, the Department of Education counts both doubled-up housing and staying in hotels as being unhoused.
In fact, the Virginia Department of Education found there were 9,000 unhoused students statewide during the 2022-23 school year. The number — one-third higher than the total number of unhoused people the 2023 Point in Time Count identified — illustrates the extent of the undercount.
Despite not capturing the entirety of homelessness, the data collected last Wednesday will show advocates and policymakers the scale and specifics of homelessness in the Shenandoah Valley this year, ideally leading to more targeted solutions to the problem.
Everyone VPM News/WMRA spoke to cited the immense need for affordable housing as the foundation of getting people experiencing homelessness back under their own roof.
But the path to that roof looks different for everyone.
For Chester, the goals are simple: “to get a job, and one that I like, and get out of here.”
“I want to get back in the finance business,” he said. “Because really that's all I know. I've been in sales my whole life.”
But for others, this year will be the beginning of their experience of homelessness.
Heatwole said she knows that, as a person who works with data, “Previous years don't predict future years.” But with current trajectories of wages not stacking up to the cost of housing and health care, she also said the results are predictable.
“We're really seeing an increase of people that the PIT Count doesn't even count, with people staying in hotels and motels or people in doubled-up situations,” she said. “And that's what's coming down the pike. Basically, that's the people who are one crisis away from being homeless.”