In Plain Sight: 10 News Investigates the growing number of people who are unsheltered

In Plain Sight | A Report Card takes a look at the services available to people experiencing homelessness and what new options city leaders are looking at to address the problem

ROANOKE, Va. – It’s a problem that cities across the country are dealing with. In Roanoke, there are more and more people experiencing homelessness.

Data shows more people are choosing to sleep outside, in cars, or in other places to avoid shelters.

“We’re expecting our numbers to continue to go up,” said Executive Director of RAM House, Melissa Woodson.

The number of people who are considered unsheltered is on the rise.

Unsheltered is defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as a person who sleeps in a place not meant for human habitation- like outside in a tent, under a bridge, or in a car.

“The volume of people that we are seeing staying outside right now it’s a challenge. We all see it out in the community,” said Roanoke’s Homeless Assistance Team Coordinator, Matt Crookshank.

From the January 2022 Point In Time Count to the July count, the number of people sleeping outside nearly tripled in a matter of just six months from 38 to 91. The count in January 2021 was only 12.

Officials like Crookshank said 91 is the highest number they’ve ever recorded in the history of the Point In Time Count.

“Really what we’ve seen over the last couple of years is just a shift from folks in shelters to staying outside,” Crookshank said.

Community leaders are attributing the rise in the homeless population to a number of recent changes, like the eviction moratorium ending, inflation, and the lack of affordable housing.

Along with hotels like the Ramada Inn and the Days Inn closing, people who were unsheltered can no longer look to those places as a refuge for the night.

“We wanted to do more as we saw the number of people sleeping outside was going higher and higher. We knew we had a role to play in making sure that number goes down,” said Rescue Mission’s Community Engagement Specialist, Kevin Berry.

The Rescue Mission’s Fralin Free Clinic began a new kind of service this year, medical street outreach, bringing medical providers and supplies to encampments.

“This ensures that we not only reach people, but we also give them critical care that if it goes untreated, it could get way worse,” explained Berry.

Officials said this, in turn, could lead to getting people off the streets, into shelters, and potentially connected with permanent housing, which is what RAM House helps with.

“We make it a priority to house those people as quickly as we can,” said Woodson.

Between the months of January and June, RAM House said they helped house 87 people who were on the street.

While this kind of assistance seems to be working, city leaders are also looking at new ways to address homelessness.

Which is what Keith Holland aims to do. He oversees the city’s Community Resources Division of Housing and Urban Development, also known as HUD.

Holland’s office handles the money the city receives from the federal government.

Right now, there is $2.4 million of American Rescue Plan funding waiting to be spent on the homeless population and affordable housing.

But before making any decisions, the city wants to hear from you through their Housing Needs Survey.

“We are trying to get input on what the need is in our community for affordable housing. In particular to address the issue of homelessness,” said Holland.

10 News asked Holland what the $2.4 million could be spent on.

“Non-congregate sheltering for the homeless, wrap-around services, affordable housing development,” he explained.

In addition to the survey, there will be a public input forum for people to share their ideas on how to address homelessness and the lack of affordable housing.

Then, a plan will be drafted and sent to Roanoke City Council to be voted on.

Holland said they hope to have a plan ready for approval by next year.

Until then, service providers will continue pushing through tightening budgets and rising demand in need. The upcoming January Point In Time Count looms in the distance.

“I think it will definitely have an impact on our numbers,” said Crookshank.

Find the Housing Needs Survey, here.

The Homeless Needs Public Forum will take place on Tuesday, November 15 at 6 p.m. at Belmont Christian Church’s Fellowship Hall in SE Roanoke.

About the Author:

Sydney joined the WSLS 10 News team in June 2021.