10 News Investigates: How Roanoke leaders are working to address homelessness

City officials say the number of people experiencing homelessness has gone down, but not everyone agrees

Homelessness in the Roanoke Valley is a problem that is clearly visible when looking around our community.

ROANOKE, Va. – Homelessness in the Roanoke Valley is a problem that is clearly visible when looking around our community.

In a special report, 10 News digs deeper into what city officials say they’re doing to help people who are experiencing homelessness and why some say more still needs to be done.

According to the latest Point-in-Time Report in 2021, Blue Ridge Interagency Council on Homelessness estimates there are 250 people experiencing homelessness in the Roanoke Valley.

In an effort to address concerns from business owners, back in December, Roanoke City Council voted to ban camping on sidewalks in the downtown district of the city.

The same sidewalks where many people experiencing homelessness laid their heads at night.

The goal was also to help connect these individuals with housing and other services.

Nearly six months later, Roanoke’s City Manager, Bob Cowell is calling it a success.

“In that case it’s worked. I mean all the encampments that were downtown have left and are no longer present. We haven’t fined or arrested anyone, that it really is about compliance,” said Cowell.

Some people say the ordinance has just shifted the problem.

Moving people from downtown sidewalks to setting up campus under bridges, overpasses and wooded areas.

We drove around the city and found camps near the airport and many people standing in medians.

To put the problem into perspective, between 2020 and 2021, the Point-in-Time Report said the number of people experiencing homelessness only decreased by 9%, from 276 people in 2020 to 250 people last year.

Community partners, like Dawn Sandoval, the founder of The Least of These Ministries disagree with those numbers.

“We have seen an increase exponentially just at our building within the last year,” said Sandoval.

She says there are still countless barriers that need to be addressed

“One of the main barriers is mental health. The second large barrier is addiction and many times they go hand in hand,” said Sandoval.

People like Joshua Haley understand the struggle all too well.

Just a year ago, he was unsheltered sleeping on Church Avenue in Roanoke.

“Mainly I stayed on the street. I didn’t really go to the [Rescue] Mission, it wasn’t for me. I have PTSD and I struggle with addiction and stuff like that,” explained Haley.

Haley says he believes homelessness stems from mental health problems including post-traumatic stress disorder, whether from being incarcerated, serving in the military or other experiences.

“A lot of people aren’t sure in their safety. That was a hurdle I had to cross and I was self-medicating out there a lot,” said Haley.

Matt Crookshank, with the city’s Homeless Assistance Team, also known as HAT, is on the frontlines connecting those experiencing homelessness with the services they need.

“We are trying to make sure that folks are either in shelter or moving back into housing,” said Crookshank.

HAT’s role includes going to a site where a homeless camp is and helping to relocate people and their belongings to a more permanent solution.

A solution like the Rescue Mission.

The Rescue Mission has recently dropped restrictions for guests in an effort to make the shelter more accessible.

“They can come in for the night and then head back out the next day, no questions asked. But there will always be a conversation with that individual,” said Kevin Berry, the Rescue Mission’s Community Outreach Coordinator.

Recently, grants from the city have been given to organizations working towards the common goal.

Like $2 million to Habitat for Humanity for rehab construction and the creation of two new outreach positions with HAT.

All efforts working to fix a problem the city knows exists.

“There is a complexity to this that isn’t just a one size fits all. It’s really person by person and situation by situation,” said Roanoke City Councilman Joe Cobb.

But there is still a long way to go.

“I think you are always going to have to evolve, you are going to have to create more innovative options for people and you are going to have to understand that you are going to have to keep identifying those areas where there is a lack and try to figure out a way to meet the needs of those people,” said Sandoval.

About the Author:

Sydney joined the WSLS 10 News team in June 2021.