To bring awareness to the issues that are caused by the elevated chronically homeless population in the downtown Roanoke area, explore possible causes of the problem and government’s role in it, and to propose meaningful solutions that will have a long term positive impact.
When we picked the topic of homelessness in the City of Roanoke, we realized that it was a very broad topic; one that we could narrow into many different sub-topics, whether it be children that are homeless, the mental health or addiction. Any number of those sub-topics would have been a worthy program.
We ultimately decided to cover was the government’s role to help minimize and eventually eliminate the downtown Roanoke homeless/transient population.
There were two main reasons for this:
One is minimizing and eventually eliminating the homeless population in this area helps the downtown business community; it’s economic. The ability for the downtown area to attract new businesses and people is a must; new businesses means new jobs with the hope of rising incomes.
The other reason is to help this population get the help they need, by supporting the programs that currently help the homeless.
Our challenge was how exactly do we present this topic to give it the proper attention needed? It was certainly a challenge, as there were people that just would say to us that Roanoke didn’t have a homeless problem or that all downtown cities have homeless; there is nothing to do about it and a “it is, what it is” mentality.
Some other responses were that the homeless you see downtown were not really homeless at all. They were individuals that chose to be on the streets.
These weren’t really the responses we wanted to hear or really expected to hear. We were happy to know that the homeless population was trending downward, at least over the last 3 years, but didn’t expect people to have the attitude that there is nothing else to be done. Maybe that was just our perception of some of the attitudes we experienced, but that lead us to sometimes come out of meetings wondering if we should change our topic.
However, there was one group of people that did express concern; downtown business owners. These business owners see the issues first hand. Every day and know that the issues they face have not necessarily gotten better with the homeless population decline. We listened to some of these business owners and heard those concerns.
So Here’s What We Did About It
We sent participants of Leadership Roanoke Valley on a race around the city called the “Amazing Raise,” to help show you how many players there are when tackling this topic, and just how overwhelming it can be to understand it. Much like the TV show the “Amazing Race”, groups were divided up, given instructions, a map and sent out to nearly 20 potential locations. Each stop had a points value and a take away.
The race kicked off at the Roanoke City Market Building. It was 15 degrees outside the morning of our program. We knew planning a race in January was risky. We did not shy away from the cold and putting participants in the elements. It was intentional. We wanted everyone to be a little uncomfortable. The topic is uncomfortable and millions of people across our country deal with being outside on a daily basis.
We incorporated Social Media into the race with the hashtag #LRVChange2016. At different locations, we asked teams to take pictures and post them to Facebook in order to get their points. We did this to raise the profile of our event and get a broader audience curious about our topic. We even included U-Turns, Detours and Roadblocks much like the Amazing Race Show, so that teams experienced some of the frustration our own group experienced while researching this topic.
Some of the highlights of the race:
- Teams had to visit Carilion and learn what a homeless patient might experience in the ER
- Find an officer in Market Square or Century Park and learn the law about sleeping in that area
- Find a roll of red tape in Elmwood Park (see any symbolism in that)
- Find the metal waves near the Roanoke City Library (they were installed to keep people from loitering)
- Visit the Roanoke Homelessness Task Force and get some stats on current homeless population
- Visit the bus station
- Visit local business Gift Nitche and hear from owner on the problem
- Swing by the Roanoke City Jail and find out what happens when someone is booked for panhandling
- Visit Habitat Restore and learn what they are doing to help people who need homes
- Stop by the Rescue Mission
- Snap a selfie on public transportation
- Go down the slide at the Roanoke City Library (just for fun!)
- A much more
After the race, we gathered at the Center in the Square rooftop and debriefed about what teams learned. A common theme was the complexity of the issue. Whether non-profit or government entity, positive things are happening everywhere, but not all of these groups are working together.
After the debrief, we had photojournalist Laura Weeks join us to share her project with the Rescue Mission called: “Project Hands.” Her work highlights a variety of individuals living at the Rescue Mission to combat the stigmas of homelessness and common misconceptions. Her project was also a stop on the race.
In the afternoon, we hosted a panel discussion with Carol Tuning of the Roanoke City Homelessness Task Force, Roanoke City Assistant Senior Attorney Tim Spencer, Director of Community Housing Resource Center Matt Crookshank, and Mala Thomas, Director of Nursing for the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Medicine for Carlion. The goal of the panel was to continue to bridge the gaps in what participants previously knew about the topic and what they learned during the race. The panel experts helped articulate what the law allows and doesn’t allow for the City to do with panhandlers, what the challenges are in trying to provide mental health service to the population of homeless individuals who need it, and the human rights provided to the individuals who are living on the streets.
To wrap up the day, Roanoke City Police Chief Chris Perkins spoke to the group and presented one of the biggest solutions we found as a team; an ambassador program for downtown. As our group studied this problem, we uncovered communities around the country who created a program of trained volunteers and employees, whose purpose is to interface with the transient, homeless, residential, and tourist populations. They help guide those who need it to necessary services, all while making for a friendly face for tourists. Chief Perkins acknowledged the success of similar programs and the possibilities for Roanoke.
Our team learned that Downtown Roanoke Inc. had a similar program but wished to expand it further and partner with the City. We asked Leadership Roanoke Valley participants to join us at the City Council Meeting on March 7th and support us as we petition the City to partner with DRI on the program.
On meeting day, we were thrilled to have many LRV participants join us as group member Cara Price spoke to City County. We informed them of our research and the willingness of Downtown Roanoke Inc. to work with them. Chris Morrill, City Manager spoke up on our behalf encouraging Council to consider allocating some funds for this program. We also reiterated that Chief Perkins and the Roanoke City Police Department would be willing to help train the Ambassadors which would be unprecedented from programs in the past.
Council members asked several questions about our vision for the program. Despite expressing some budget concerns, they agreed to look further into potential funding for the program.
A few days later, our team also received a call from WDBJ 7 interested in learning more about the story. Reporter Shayne Dwyer interviewed us and wrote about our plan to help clean up downtown, comparing it to a successful program developed in Pheonix, AZ. Here is the story link.
In addition to the Ambassador Program, we asked participants to save the “See Something, Say Something” phone number to text the Roanoke City Police Department to direct message the police if they see an individual aggressively panhandling or any other crime. The number is 274637 and you must begin the message with RoanokePD.
To us, even though the homeless population may be trending downward, it’s not an excuse to become complacent and think that the problem is solved. We need to remain committed to helping both the homeless and the businesses in the downtown area. It is important for government to be the catalyst to bring both the private sector businesses and the non-profit organizations together to address the downtown homeless population. There is already a lot of work being done on both sides, as our participants learned during the race and from the panel, but it cannot stop there.
Government Team Participants:
- Lia Boggs, Carilion Clinic
- Holly DiGangi, Taubman Museum of Art
- Richard Hedley, Cherry Bekaert LLP
- Amy Hartley, Wells Fargo Bank
- Erika Lovegreen, Medical Facilities of America
- Cara Price, Member One Federal Credit Union
- Aaron Shearer, Western Virginia Water Authority
Government Team Advisors:
- Ashley McCallum, Roanoke County Public Schools
- Stephanie Frost, Comcast Spotlight
- Frank Giannini, Member One Federal Credit Union