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The WMRA news team, led by Kara Lofton, dives into the problem of homelessness, its causes (including mental illness and addiction, and the lack of affordable housing), and possible solutions.

A Community Conversation About Hunger and Homelessness

Is there Hope for Hunger and Homelessness in Harrisonburg? City councilman Kai Degner certainly thinks so.In the third installment of our series on homelessness in Virginia, WMRA’s Kara Lofton has the story.

The attitude that nothing good ever comes from just getting together and talking is the kind of attitude Harrisonburg City councilman Kai Degner would like to challenge.

Degner is the main organizer and facilitator for an event called Hope for Hunger and Homelessness in Harrisonburg, this Saturday at the Lucy Simms Recreation Center. It is what he calls “a community summit.”

KAI DEGNER: On Saturday this event is designed for people in the community who are new to the work and who are interested in being part of the solution, to come together with professionals in the work who do this day in and day out… and people that are clients of the services that relate to helping people that are hungry get the food they need and people that are homeless get the housing they need.

The summit allows anyone who attends to propose a “breakout” topic on something they are interested in such as hunger in schools, mental illness or affordable housing. If other attendees show interest in that topic, they can enter into conversation around it.

An earlier summit sparked a conversation with a homeless man who said that he had a place to get food and shelter, but didn’t have a place to shower. As a result of that conversation, officials opened a school twice a week to provide showers and a place to use laundry facilities with laundry kits provided from another organization.

DEGNER: We’ve had about a dozen community summits in this particular type of format and the idea is that with the issue as complex as hunger and homelessness there are many, many factors that contribute to it and many, many services that are already in place dealing with it. What isn’t always available to people involved is getting together in a room and discussing ideas for collaboration.

Michael Wong is the executive director at the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority, an organization that works collaboratively with shelters in Harrisonburg and helps fund building projects through government grants.

MICHAEL WONG: Services have really shifted in the last three years. Initially homeless services focused primarily on shelter services with transitional services being provided in some localities. About four years ago, emphasis was placed on, especially on the Harrisonburg-Rockingham area with the Ten-year Plan to End Homelessness, on rapid rehousing, permanent support of housing, and centralized intake.

The Ten-year Plan to End Homelessness was written in October 2010. Wong served as Chairman for the plan’s steering committee, which included Degner (who then was Harrisonburg Mayor) and a number of others from the community.

Our vision as a community, says the document, “is that by 2021, every citizen of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County will have access to a home, as well as the services and supports they need to thrive and achieve self-sufficiency. The common understanding of this ten year plan is that homelessness is solvable. However, we acknowledge the need for a renewed and focused effort that mobilizes the community to make ending homelessness a priority.”

At Saturday's summit, the Harrisonburg Housing Authority will be presenting an update on how the Ten Year Plan is progressing. The numbers suggest it's working.

In 2012, there were 170 individuals in shelters. In the latest survey this year, there were 133, a 22% reduction in three years.

WONG: We have been very successful in regard to achieving the goals established within that plan, now it's making those projects work fully functional and hopefully we’ll see a significant reduction in regard to our homelessness.

Degner hopes the summit will provide the space community members need to continue to achieve that goal.

DEGNER: One of the worries for people when they hear about events like this is ‘what’s going to come out of talking and listening?’, so first of all I want to defend the work of creating a space for people to come together. I think the work of convening is very important and if you can trust the people that show up to bring what they’re working into the room, you can have a lot of confidence there will be very tangible outcomes for all of the people who attend.

Kara Lofton is a photojournalist based in Harrisonburg, VA. She is a 2014 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University and has been published by EMU, Sojourners Magazine, and The Mennonite. Her reporting for WMRA is her radio debut.