Shelters struggle to house more homeless

Published 10:33 pm Tuesday, April 28, 2009

If there’s one thing that people who provide resources for the homeless in Suffolk can agree on, it’s this: The number of homeless people is on the rise, and the homeless people need help now.

Since 2007, the number of people without a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence in Western Tidewater has more than doubled, from 30 just two years ago to 71 in 2009, according to a recent survey. This year’s numbers include 15 families with children, as well as 29 adults without children.

The situation is dire and is likely to get worse before it gets better, said Larissa Sutherland, community relations coordinator for the ForKids Suffolk House.

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“Often, families will move around, staying with friends or family, for six months to a year before exhausting all resources and coming to the shelter,” Sutherland wrote in an e-mail. “We anticipate that within six months to a year, we will see an even greater rise in homelessness, due to this economic turndown.”

The economy and a collapsed housing market have combined to create every homeless shelter director’s worst nightmare — having to turn people away, because there is not enough room in the shelter.

“In March, we received 53 requests for shelter and were able to house three people,” Sutherland said. The Suffolk House also has experienced a dramatic increase in calls for utilities assistance, she added. Many callers are in tears.

Although the aptly-named ForKids organization, which has a second four-month emergency shelter in Norfolk, focuses primarily on families with children, Sutherland has taken in six single women in recent months, because the need was simply too great for her to turn them away.

Coupled with the increased demand comes a decline in monthly contributions from the community, Sutherland said.

“Contributions are coming in well under half of what we projected in order to meet our budget requirement,” she said. Suffolk House relies on volunteers and donations of food and supplies to sustain its operations. It takes about $50,000 a month to operate the shelter and service program, Sutherland added.

Across town, the Genieve Shelter, a shelter and support system for abused women and children, has been trying to help fight the homeless problem, as well. Val Livingston, the shelter’s director, said she has seen a spike in the number of women the shelter has helped, and believes it’s related to the economy. So far this year, the shelter has helped 119 women, compared with 98 for all of last year.

Livingston also noted an increase in calls for assistance, mostly from homeless people.

“I’ve probably helped more homeless individuals this year than in past years,” Livingston said. “We get homeless calls every day.”

Two calls Livingston received recently made her realize just how desperate the situation has become for some people, she said. One man had just been released from the hospital after having surgery, and was staying in his car because he could not afford shelter.

A woman with children went to the Department of Social Services for help, and they offered a list of phone numbers and told her that if she came back still homeless, they would take her children.

“For her, that meant ‘Don’t come back,’” Livingston said. “This is the stuff that makes your heart bleed.”

Some callers, Livingston said, are contemplating suicide as their last option. Some children in homeless families haven’t been in school in weeks, which causes a whole other set of problems.

“These children, through no fault of their own, are not in school,” she said. “They’re not going to get promoted and are going to fall further and further behind, and end up being the people we’re afraid of on the street.”

Livingston said the Tidewater Continuum of Care Council is investigating ways to address the lack of resources and shelter. The group would like to have donations of property that can be rehabilitated and established as emergency shelters to increase the area’s capacity, she said.

“Most of the shelters have been full almost any day you call them,” she said.

The council also is working on solutions to the two largest segments of homeless society — single men and single women.

“We don’t have enough resources for single women,” Livingston said. “There’s nothing for single, homeless men.”

The problem will require plenty of community effort, Livingston acknowledged.

“Those are two things we really need to address, and no one organization can do that by themselves.”