Continuum Building

Monday, February 27, 2006

Think homeless. What's likely to come to mind are pictures of people huddled in doorways, asleep on park benches, camped-out beneath highway overpasses in large cities.

Think again.

"We make a big mistake," says Nikki Nicholau, Deputy Director of the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, "if we believe homelessness is only a big-city challenge. It's not. In even the smallest, most rural areas you will find people who are homeless or who are just a paycheck or a missed rent payment away from homelessness."

[Photo 1: People Inc- Transitional Shelter in Grundy, VA]
People Inc- Transitional Shelter in Grundy, VA.

Nicholau's department is HUD's "balance of state" partner in the Commonwealth of Virginia, awarding millions dollars annually in General Assembly, HUD and non-HUD Federal funds to help the State's smaller cities and rural areas help the homeless.

In a November 2005 report to the General Assembly, DHCD reported that its network of 114 "emergency, domestic violence, transitional and winter shelters served 19,537 households, representing 27,546 persons" in the state's 2005 fiscal year.

"That's the good news," Nicholau adds. "The not-so-good news is that the same network had to deny 55,000 requests for assistance, principally because of a lack of beds. For all we're doing, there is obviously lots more for us to do."

The challenge is being met. DHCD, for example, has formed a Virginia Interagency Council on Homelessness to better coordinate the response of both State and Federal agencies. Its SHARE homeless prevention program providing funds to folks who've fallen behind in mortgage or rent programs through no fault of their own now operates statewide. It's awarded $300,000 in HOME funds to establish rental assistance pilot projects for the homeless in Waynesboro and Martinsville. And it's helping fund a supportive housing complex for ex-offenders in Norfolk. And it's forming a "balance of state" Continuum of Care. "Most of Virginia's large and mid-sized cities have a Continuum up and running," Nicholau says. "But look at a map of Virginia and you'll see that more than two-thirds of the land area of the state does not have Continuum coverage."

[Photo 2: Vint Hill Transtional Housing Operated by Fauquier Family Shelter]
Vint Hill Transtional Housing Operated by Fauquier Family Shelter.

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee of the Virginia General Assembly estimated recently that the lack of Continuum in rural areas was costing the state some $1.4 million annually in foregone revenues.

"That could have funded a lot of beds and a lot of services," Nicholau notes. "But just as important, an established, statewide Continuum provides all of these smaller communities with a forum where they could share ideas, pool resources, and tap each other's expertise in addressing the particular needs of the homeless in their particular communities."

By the end of the year, Nicholau adds, every planning district commission in the state will be part of a Continuum of Care organization.

Going forward, DHCD's statewide "continuum building" will be aided greatly by a first-ever Continuum grant from HUD of almost $900,000. Of greater significance, Nicholau says, may be the "tremendous enthusiasm" shown across the state. "Our Continuum is growing by leaps and bounds. The only question most jurisdictions have had for us is "where do we sign up and when do we get to work."

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