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New Blue Ridge Area Coalition for the Homeless director wants to put data to work and roofs over people's heads

The number of people in Charlottesville who have fallen into homelessness has grown by 25% since 2018. Today, there are 165 known homeless people in the city. Of those, 41% have an income but still cannot afford to put a roof over their heads.

The numbers are stark. But it’s the numbers that will help the city overcome this crisis, according to Shayla Washington.

“How can you make any decisions about helping the unhoused if you don’t have any data to work with?” asked Washington in a recent interview with The Daily Progress.

Washington was named executive director of the Blue Ridge Area Coalition for the Homeless in November. She replaces Anthony Haro at the organization which coordinates and leads collaborative efforts to address homelessness in the area.

She brings with her 14 years of nonprofit experience and a data-driven approach she believes can help the city find long-lasting solutions to its longtime housing crisis.

“I’m excited to step into the role because I think I have the chops to work with other service providers,” Washington said, specifically referencing her years working for the Haven day shelter for the homeless and the city’s Human Services Department.

With her years of experience working with the local homeless population, Washington already knows many of the people the coalition serves.

Washington put it plainly: The homelessness crisis is an affordable housing crisis.

“It’s not that they’re difficult to house, it’s that we don’t have the right housing for them,” she said. “I’ve seen the cost of housing skyrocket in the last several years. Folks who were getting fixed income through Social Security were able to afford housing for $500 a month. Now, it’s up to almost $700 a month and taking almost all of their paycheck. It’s tough for people with a limited income to find anything they can afford. A lot of people are staying outside or in shelters because they can’t meet rent month to month.”

Those who can’t access the city’s year-round overnight shelter at the Salvation Army or the wintertime shelter offered by People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry, or PACEM, often have no other choice but to sleep on the street or in a car, without access to running water. Washington said, right now, she expects that number of people to rise as the city’s housing market remains prohibitively expensive for many.

With a median price tag of $445,900, Charlottesville house prices hit an “all-time high” at the midpoint of 2023, according to the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors. At $1,937, Charlottesville’s average monthly rent is 13% higher than the national average and more in line with larger Northern Virginia cities than its neighbors in Central Virginia, according to data compiled by RentCafe, a national apartment listing service.

Washington said she has been working to compile more data of her own.

She has already accomplished one of her early goals to meet with city officials and discuss the numbers and consider how to apply them toward solutions.

The city of Charlottesville recently created a task force to end homelessness, and while its currently only staffed by city employees, it is reaching out to external stakeholders for assistance. The Blue Ridge Area Coalition for the Homeless is the first group it contacted, in part because the group — and Washington — are so focused on data.

The late November meeting included Washington, City Manager Sam Sanders and Deputy City Manager Ashley Marshall.

When Sanders first presented his homeless intervention strategy to City Council in early October, he said Marshall would play an important role in that initiative.

“I’ve identified an internal work group and I’ve asked Ashley Marshall to lead that because I think it’s important for us to make sure that we can go where we need to go on that issue, and that means we have to go deep,” Sanders said. “There’s a lot to be done.”

Washington said she feels the virtual meeting she had with Sanders and Marshall was a promising start, but she noted much of the planning to tackle homelessness in the city is still in preliminary stages.

“The meeting was not a planning meeting, nor a strategy meeting but simply an introduction opportunity for a new nonprofit leader to connect and put ‘faces to names,’” Marshall wrote in a statement to The Daily Progress.

“She’s still figuring out what services our shelters provide and what they don’t, who they serve and who they can’t,” Washington said of Marshall.

It was at the meeting that Marshall requested a “by-name list,” a comprehensive list of all the known homeless men and women in a community. According to Washington, there are 162 people on the by-name list today.

When Washington meets with the city again on Jan. 25, she said she expects to have additional numbers to share.

That’s because on Jan. 24 Charlottesville will be doing its “Point-in-Time” count, which is effectively a snapshot of how many people are homeless in the community on a specific night. The count takes place nationally on the fourth Wednesday of each January. Cities relay their findings to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Those numbers help HUD determine how much money to send each city for its homeless population.

That’s where Charlottesville gets a large chunk of its funding, Washington said.

That chunk could be especially important this year. The Salvation Army, the city’s only year-round homeless shelter, is $17,000 short of its current fundraising goal and regularly runs out of beds.

The Point-in-Time count will involve a team of volunteers casing the city, surveying people living in shelters and on the streets. It will give Washington insight, not just into how many people are unhoused but their most pressing needs.

Washington has already started collecting some data of her own. According to her, 51% of the homeless community is Black and 70% is men.

“Clearly Black people are overrepresented in the system of care. Why is that? Data will help tell a story,” she said.

Although the coalition’s own numbers show that homelessness has increased in Charlottesville over the past five years, Washington herself said she doesn’t believe the rise itself has contributed to the public’s increased interest in the unhoused.

It’s visibility not hard numbers that has garnered the public’s attention, she said.

Washington said she could tell the public started paying attention to the problem when a homeless encampment was erected at Market Street Park in downtown Charlottesville earlier this year after Sanders lifted the park’s curfew in the wake of accusations that city police had mistreated homeless in the park. Those accusations were denied by the police and the curfew was reinstated after three weeks, but the dozens of tents and the condition of the people living in them had an impact on the people of the city, Washington said.

“When people are trying to shop on or near the Downtown Mall, seeing homeless people next to the library at the park is a shock to their system. They think if it’s not in front of them it must not exist. Having the curfew lifted at the park brought it to light,” Washington said.

She said that there are already a lot of workers and volunteers doing outreach work across the city who really do want to help the homeless.

“They are doing a great job, but they are limited and we need to do more,” she said, adding that part of her job will be to find additional funding for the city.

“I’ve been doing this work for so long, and being executive director will help me be creative to address the situation,” she said. “It’s not going away.”


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