Fredericksburg Vice Mayor Ellis Continues Work on Homelessness
The Fredericksburg City Councilman came back with several ideas to combat homelessness here.
Fredericksburg Vice Mayor Brad Ellis came to a realization one day when he was volunteering at a local homeless shelter when he saw a middle-aged man who fell on hard times. He seemed like an average blue-collar guy who somehow found himself in a homeless shelter.
"That experience made me realize this could happen to me," he said. "Nobody sets out to become homeless as a goal—it happens and we have our fair share in Fredericksburg."
Citing complaints from local residents about increasing problems associated with the the city's homeless population, Ellis called for a local task force to research ways to combat homelessness in Fredericksburg back in March. He has developed a draft charter for the task force that is being vetted.
This past weekend, Ellis attended a two-day summit in Richmond with the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness and he came back with several ideas he wants to bring to City Council and the public to see if there's any will to move forward.
"In an effort to help me better understand the problem, I went down to this conference," he said. "It helped me understand the problem and what is being done to address the homelessness issue and what resources are available."
One thing Ellis learned is that by having a housing authority, the city can get more federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and Virginia Housing Development Authority vouchers to help low-income families and the homeless with housing. The Central Virginia Housing Coalition has an office on Hudgins Road in Fredericksburg and does have programs to get these vouchers, but the waiting list is closed.
Another idea Ellis heard about is permanent supportive housing that has had success in Richmond and Arlington. Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) is a program that helps eligible people find a permanent home and also get local mental health services. Ellis said homeless people often share one or all three traits: they have a mental illness, they are unemployed and/or they have a criminal background. The traditional approach has been to address those three areas first and make the individual earn housing.
"The idea is not to create some temporary housing or give people money to live in a hotel for a few months and then say 'good luck,'" Ellis said. "What they found is when they started treating these people, the No. 1 thing they wanted more than anything was having a roof over their head."
There are a variety of ways to fund such a project, including HUD vouchers, disability funding and Veterans Administration funds. A regional approach might work best, Ellis said. The city could consider using blighted properties for an adaptive reuse project to create permanent supportive housing that would qualify for the vouchers and other services to treat the other problems.
"Projects like these are certainly going to require political will to get off the ground," Ellis said. "A lot of my constituents, and I would say this as well, say 'We don’t need more high-density housing or multi-family housing units.' However, what we do have in the city is our share of hotels that are blighted. Maybe they are not legally designated as blighted, but they are eyesores."
Ellis said these properties could be considered for an adaptive reuse project and a portion of the units could be designated for veterans only, a portion for the homeless and a portion for workforce low-income housing.
"Some people may say, 'We don’t need more low-income housing workforce housing,' but we've got an eyesore property where low-income and homeless already live. So, why not revitalize it and actually create this integrated community?"
Ellis said he isn't advocating for any of these ideas or projects, but he does want to hear the opinions of other council members and the public to spark discussion. He said there was data at this summit that showed localities that use these approaches do not become a magnet for the homeless and low-income populations.
"The data is there that if you give them a roof over their head they will get a job and contribute to the tax base," Ellis said.
Success in Virginia
A-Span—Ending Homelessness in Arlington, has had success with a similar housing-first projects. Jan-Michael Sacharko, A-Span's director of development, said they have 25 clients in permanent supportive housing today and have served a total of 41 since 2007. He said placing homeless people in housing with the wrap-around care can lead them to voluntarily seek out treatment for any substance abuse or mental health problems.
"They are one of 15 communities nationwide that are actually on track to end chronic and vulnerable homelessness according to our data," said Jake Maguire, the communications director for 100,000 Homes campaign.
Maquire said the housing-first approach is far more successful than traditional programs that try to deal with the mental health or substance abuse problems before providing the person with housing. When housing comes first, Maguire said about 85 percent do not return to homelessness, where the traditional approaches have success rates as low as 20-30 percent.
"The research shows this just works," he said. "When we look at people who are already homeless, our brains say that person is different, this is a special case and they need to earn it. That's fine, you don't have to support those people with housing, but the consequences of what I think is an ideological decision is that person will probably remain homeless. It is just too difficult. When we move people into housing and give them that basic nucleus of stability, they have that space to work on these other things. Housing is really the first step of turning their lives around."