Undoubtably, there is an elephant in the room of any discussion about homelessness:
“Where are they coming from?” and “Why are they here?”
The perception, of course, is that those seeking assistance in our community have flocked here to take advantage of wonderful human service programs, such as Micah. Seemingly, there are so many on our streets that people assume they cannot possibly be “from here.” Yet, there is a logic in to these questions that far exceeds the implied assumptions.
If you are a “been here”–born in the Fredericksburg region, attended secondary school in the area or at least raised your children here–you’ve probably been around long enough to remember a time when everybody knew everyone.
There was a time, in fact, when there were so few restaurants that you couldn’t go out to eat without seeing someone you knew. At one point, there was such little recreational opportunity in the area that the main event after a Friday night high school football game was meeting up at Carl’s or finding some place to get in trouble. There was a time that we knew our neighbors, and if we didn’t there was something wrong with us. New people in town, were just simply outsiders yet to earn their rights as a “been here.”
As much as I miss those days, especially the neighbors knowing neighbors part, we are fooling ourselves to not accept that our community is changing.
In what is now the fastest growing part of the state, the “come here’s” have long outnumbered the “been heres. Most of our elected officials can’t even claim to have been here for more than the number of years it took to build the connections required to gain the votes that put them in office. By contrast, the annual census of our homeless population reveals that 72% last resided in one of our region’s five jurisdictions before ending up on the street or in a shelter.
Out of 217 people (58 of which are children) identified in this year’s single day count, here’s the breakdown:
• Caroline: 4.6%
• Fredericksburg: 24.4%
• King George: 3.2%
• Spotsylvania: 22.6%
• Stafford: 14.3%
• Other local, but did not provide specific zip code: 2.8%
• Other Virginia: 12.9%
• Outside Virginia: 15.2%
It is worth noting that those who fall in the “Other Virginia” category is not indicative of people coming from all over the state. They are often people from rural areas, such as Westmoreland, Culpeper and Orange, which lack homeless services all together. Fredericksburg, for them, is simply the closest help available.
According to the annual count, most homeless individuals have lived in our region for an average of 13 years. Some have been here as long as 62 years; others as short as one week. But overall, 67% report to have been in the area for at least a year or longer. Just 18% have been here fewer than six months.
Generally, most communities find that upwards of 70% or more of their homeless originated in or close to their own jurisdictions. Even Los Angeles, home to the largest population of homeless in the country, consistently reports that 80+% of their homeless lived in housing locally before they ended up on the street or in a shelter. Numerous studies around the country, including the local census, validate these reports and reinforce the reality that people experiencing homelessness relocate for the same reasons that we all do–jobs, housing, support network and opportunity. Locally, most people said they came to the area because of friends/family, employment or housing opportunities. Sixteen percent were born here. Only one person, out of 217, claimed to have come to the area because of its homeless services. And just four individuals claimed to be passing through. Micah even spends thousands of dollars each year, just to relocate those with promise for greater stability in other communities where income, shelter and people who care about them reside.
In a separate study of those who access just Micah’s services, the data showed that most people identified the Fredericksburg region as “home” even after losing their physical residence because it was where they graduated high school.
Why then, does it seem like there are so many new faces living on our streets?
Here are a few theories:
• By 2025 the overall population in our region is expected to double. If the service system does not evolve and respond fast enough, we cannot expect to see the percentage of total homeless relative to the total population be anything less than stagnant.
• We no longer live in a community where everybody knows everybody. As much as I hate to admit it, the price of progress and the burial of what was once “dead Fred” has brought on population growth and a more urban mindset that tends to be far more individualized and less communal.
• There are plenty of people living in poverty, even at risk of homelessness, who never end up on the street or in a shelter. These individuals shop in our stores, go to their jobs and move about the community like the rest of us. They may even look homeless, but just because someone doesn’t clean up well, rides a bicycle, carries a backpack or even panhandles doesn’t mean they are living on the street or in a shelter.
• The face of homelessness, particularly those on the street, is changing. Visible homelessness, particularly the chronically so who have been on the streets so long they blended into the sidewalk, used to be your older, sicker and generally less mobile folks. Most of those have moved on, died or been housed in the efforts that have reduced chronic homelessness by 58% in the last five years. What’s hitting the streets these days is a whole pack of 18-24 year olds who have aged out of foster care or checked out or kicked out of their parents homes when they became legal adults. In many cases, they aren’t yet chronic. They are newly on the streets and don’t yet know how to survive, much less make the kinds of decisions that come with being “of age.” No, they haven’t likely been on the street long enough for people to know who they are and that they are from here, but that doesn’t mean they belong to us any less than those we’ve always known.
People don’t understand