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Post by Shelby Taraba, Engagement Fellow, James Madison Center for Civic Engagement

According to a USA Today article published in July, Harrisonburg is the city in Virginia where concentrated poverty is increasing most rapidly.  The Breeze covered this article published in USA Today claiming that they over exaggerated the severity of poverty in Harrisonburg.  However, according to data from the United Way’s ALICE report, 60% of households in Harrisonburg and 42% of households in Rockingham County are in poverty or party of the ALICE population.

There is a homelessness crisis in Harrisonburg and it deserves attention, yet many Harrisonburg residents, whether they have lived in town for years or are students that reside here temporarily, are unaware of this challenge in our community. On August 23rd, Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed held a forum on homelessness to present information and start a conversation about addressing the issue.

In attempt to alleviate the effects of the homelessness crisis in Harrisonburg, organizations and elected officials have developed a ten-year action plan to combat homelessness.  Michael Wong, the Executive Director of Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority, detailed the importance of nine major initiatives of the action plan, which include:

  1. Ensuring access to job placement services;
  2. Expanding the centralized intake process to ensure a “single point of entry” approach to coordinate and streamline existing local resources;
  3. Implementing prevention and rapid rehousing strategies;
  4. Creating permanent supportive housing for individuals experiences homelessness with severe needs, including chronic homelessness–which was defined as those who have experienced homelessness for three years, have disabilities, and have experienced three or more counts of recurrence within the previously stated timeframe;
  5. Creating a landlord network to support rapid rehousing initiatives and to address biases some landlords practice based on tenants’ sources of income;
  6. Developing street outreach and a youth homelessness program
  7. Improving jail and hospital discharge planning processes
  8. Improving current data collection methods
  9. Improving outreach and community awareness of the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness goals and objectives.

Various community organizations in Harrisonburg are working to assist those who face the burden of homelessness.  Shannon Porter of Mercy House, Sam Nickles of Our Community Place, and John Whitfield of Blue Ridge Legal Services are few community members dedicated to addressing this issue. At the forum, they offered information to dispel myths associated with the epidemic of homelessness, including:

Myth 1: People who are homeless are that way because of their poor choices.

Response: Homelessness is an economic issue and rarely occurs because of the choices people make.  According to the National Coalition to end Homelessness, the top 5 causes of homelessness are 1) lack of affordable housing, 2) lack of a living wage, 3) domestic violence, 4) medical bankruptcy, and 5) mental illness.  Not all people who experience homelessness are not unemployed, indigent, or transient, but working/lower middle class citizens who simply need affordable housing; I build upon the issue of affordable housing in Harrisonburg in Myth 7.

Myth 2: The cause of homelessness is drug and alcohol abuse.

Response: Only 20% of people report drug or alcohol as the cause of their homelessness.  Drug and alcohol abuse is often a product of experiencing homelessness but rarely, if ever, the direct cause as reported by

Myth 3: People experiencing homelessness are single men.

Response: Families are the fastest growing population experiencing homelessness. Nationally, the trend seen regarding homelessness is that most of those experiencing homelessness are single males while ⅓ of the population experiencing homelessness is families.  However, families as the fastest growing population to experience homelessness.

Myth 4: People experiencing homelessness are transient/drifters.

Response: A recent study found that 75% of people experiencing homelessness are still living in the city in which they started experiencing homelessness. According to Sam Nickels of Our Community Place, studies have shown that people experiencing homelessness do not migrate for services but instead are moving to new areas: in search of work, because of family in the area, or other reasons NOT related to services.

Myth 5: People experiencing homelessness are unemployed.

Response: Declining wages have put housing out of reach for many workers so much so that in MANY states a minimum wage worker would have to work 87 hours/week to afford a two bedroom apartment at 30% of their income which is the federal definition of affordable housing.

Myth 6: Getting a job will keep someone from being affected by homelessness.

Response: The National Low Income Housing Coalition found that a full-time minimum wage worker would have to work between 69 and 174 hours/week (depending on the state) to pay for an “affordable” two bedroom rental unit.  Again, the federal government defines “affordable” as 30% of a person’s income. This means a full-time minimum wage worker couldn’t afford a one or two bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent, a standard set by the federal government, in ANY state.

Myth 7: Homelessness is a permanent problem and we will never solve it.

Response: There are effective solutions such as permanent supportive housing or targeted affordable housing assistance, which would reduce homelessness AND saves taxpayer dollars otherwise spent on costly shelters and hospitalization. There is a lack of sustainable work which would provide access to the above services such as childcare, transportation, and healthcare.

The main source of frustration affecting those experiencing homelessness in Harrisonburg, and Virginia broadly, are Virginia’s laws concerning eviction and living standards. Virginia’s eviction rate is TWICE the national average and Virginia’s eviction laws aren’t helping to eliminate the problems. In Virginia, tenants have a 5 day grace period for paying rent and for eviction notices whereas most state laws permit a 10 day grace period.  Likewise, in Virginia it is legal to provide only one chance to tenants who miss the 5 day grace period as opposed to other states which allow multiple chances. Also there are virtually no laws which protect the tenant from eviction or discrimination.  In Virginia it is legal to discriminate based on income or situational circumstances, meaning landlords can deny tenants who qualify for Section VIII Housing or can deny tenants who are utilizing services from, for example, Mercy House.

A (Not so) Fun Fact: According to Richmond (2), Hampton (3), Newport News (4) Norfolk (6), Chesapeake (10), and all are included in the top 10 ranked cities in the United States for eviction.

Myth 8: Fighting homelessness is expensive.

Respone: Discretionary Programs that help low income people meet basic needs (mostly housing assistance) made up only 2.2% of the federal budget.

The Central Florida Commission on Homelessness found housing costs $10,000 per person per year while leaving them homeless costs law enforcement, jails, hospitals, and other community services $31,000 per person per year.

There are MANY organizations in Harrisonburg that work to help community members experiencing homelessness including: Our Community Place, Mercy House, Blue Ridge Legal Services, Open Doors, Strength in Peers, First Step, Salvation Army, any many more that can be found on You can get engaged with these organizations and attend local board and commission meetings to learn more about addressing these issues. You can also consider organizing an event, workshop, discussion or Day of Action during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness week at JMU during the week of November 10-18, 2018. The James Madison Center for Civic Engagement can help you make an action plan and facilitate. Learn more about Hunger and Homelessness Awareness week across the US and get ideas here.

“[T]he public good, the real welfare of the great body of the people, is the supreme object to be pursued.”-James Madison, Federalist 45