Hopeful Homeless

Williamsburg’s Long-Ignored Homeless Population Is Starting To Get The Shelter And Support It Needs

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Folks are beginning to trickle into the shelter on one of those early-sundown evenings with a decided nip in the air. First, the volunteers show up—generally an older crowd, eager to make sure each station is in shipshape. Then comes the second wave of arrivals—down-on-their-luck locals looking for a place to stay the night. This isn’t some urban core in Coastal Virginia, though, where poverty goes hand-in-hand with boarded-up storefronts and newspapers that blow down the street like tumbleweeds. This emergency shelter happens to be an old Presbyterian church, situated on the historic streets of Virginia’s colonial capital.

Homelessness may not be what immediately comes to mind when people think of Williamsburg, but even here, behind weathered brick walls, in the shadow of thrill rides, on the fringes of shopping malls, are neighbors who need a reliable roof over their head. In many respects, the Historic Triangle is similar to other communities in Coastal Virginia, beholden to quirks of economy and geography that prevent one-size-fits-all solutions to pressing problems such as homelessness. But after decades of taking piecemeal stabs at tackling homelessness in Williamsburg, it turns out that an age-old idea—collaboration—is getting results where previous efforts came up short.

Roy Gerardi, director of human and social services for the City of Williamsburg, says that people in the region are homeless for a lot of reasons. Nevertheless, he explains, a couple reasons that cause or complicate homelessness occur in Williamsburg more often than other cities. For instance, many of the positions that are easiest to get in the Historic Triangle come and go with the tourists: hotel housekeepers, theme park attendants, timeshare groundskeepers, restaurant wait staff. In the off-season, especially in January and February, many of those workers are temporarily laid off.

Even when Williamsburg is flush with travelers, many jobs go to out-of-towners, such as commuters from Newport News or Hampton, or foreign workers, all of whom are willing to accept the seasonal employment. Williamsburg consistently has an unemployment rate that’s more than double Virginia’s average (which, according to the latest figures in September 2013, were 10.6 and 5.3 percent, respectively).

Those lucky enough to have a steady paycheck during the tourist season are often paid minimum wage or not much more. In an area with a higher cost of living than nearby communities, even full-time workers can’t make ends meet. Throw a dependent child or two into the mix and you have homelessness just waiting to happen.

Many of Williamsburg’s working poor vie for the few affordable apartments or stay in any of the city’s numerous budget motels, paying for their shelter on a week-to-week basis. “All it takes is for someone to get the flu, and they’re out on the street,” says Gerardi.

There’s not one poverty-stricken district, one corner of Greater Williamsburg, where the homeless stay or congregate, and that scattered nature has fostered a reluctance among locals to own up to the problem. Williamsburg has long been a community perceived as well-to-do and dependent on a clean image. Appearances are everything. In Williamsburg proper, residents are not required to set their garbage cans at the street on pick-up day (sanitation workers go behind their homes to retrieve them). Store signs are not permitted to be overly flashy. HOAs enforce strict color palettes in keeping with the city’s historic character. For a long time, many Williamsburg residents were loath to concede that homelessness was part of that ethos.

But the figures don’t lie. Local school districts enrolled more than 400 homeless students last year. The 2012 Point-In-Time Estimates of Homelessness count, an annual tally of homeless people conducted on a single January night, recorded well over one hundred individuals in Greater Williamsburg staying in shelters or on the streets.

And if Williamsburg didn’t already have enough barriers to handling the problem of homelessness, there’s geography to consider, too. The community is comprised of three jurisdictions, with boundaries that sometimes defy logic. Colonial Williamsburg, for instance, lies in the city itself. Water Country USA, on the other hand, is in York County. And Williamsburg Premium Outlets are located in James City County.

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