Roanoke United Way CEO Afira DeVries on a mission to end homelessness

Homeless for the Holidays? Many Americans out in the cold right here in our communities

Jeremy Angione

With the arrival of the holiday season many Americans are enjoying family, food and time honored traditions. However, for many families, the chill in the air and the commercial expectations that come with the season are simply too much. Homelessness can be particularly troublesome this time of year with the added element of supporting a family.

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) concluded that as of 2016, families experiencing homelessness decreased by 23 percent since 2010. Despite the progress, the agency states there is more work required because, “there are still more than 206,000 people in families experiencing homelessness on any given night.”

According to USICH, those families are most often headed by a single woman in her late 20s, with approximately two children, one or both younger than six.. They face challenges and traumas, including increased exposure to family and community violence. The effects of those experiences on young children can last a lifetime,” the organization’s findings show.

Although Roanoke is home to myriad organizations and charities catering to community needs, homelessness is still a serious issue. Much like the national statistic provided by the USICH, Roanoke seems to be making headway concerning homelessness, according to United Way of Roanoke CEO, Afira DeVries.

“January 25, 2017, our annual Point in Time Count identified 267 homeless individuals in the Roanoke Valley,” DeVries says. “That number is only half of what it was in 2012. This is good news and news we should be proud of.”

Family homelessness is a multifaceted issue that requires a multipronged initiative to combat. Marie Muddiman of Family Promise of Greater Roanoke, an organization that directly assists homeless families, identifies several key factors that often lead to homelessness in the Roanoke area. Those factors include: lack of affordable housing, lack of living wage employment, substance abuse and mental health issues.

Adding children to the equation often compounds these issues and the effects of homelessness. “Children experience trauma when they are homeless,” Muddiman says. “It can manifest in every area of their lives.  Safety, security and health should be a priority as a family.”

This time of year can make things more difficult for a family already facing homelessness. The likelihood of local families to face homelessness during the winter months increases as utility costs go up and the climate becomes cold and wet in our region. “For these reasons and more, United Way and our partners put forth a focused effort to provide housing services this time of year,” DeVries says. These collaborative efforts by local community organizations are key in providing a safety net for families during the holidays, DeVries adds.

“While our community is beginning to make progress, many of our partners are facing significant financial challenges. As a community we need to pull together to support United Way and the community partners who ensure services are available for families when they are in need,” DeVries says. “Another way we can address homelessness is to ensure that we have ample affordable housing options for families across our community, not only in certain neighborhoods.”

She suggests that the community, its organizations and event families become proactive rather than reactive to the issue of homelessness. “Families should reach out for help at the first sign of need. The earlier we can partner with families, the more likely we are to prevent homelessness from ever happening,” DeVries says.

Roanoke is host to several initiatives seeking preventive measures in the fight against family homelessness. They include: United Way’s Rehousing Youth for Success in Education (RYSE), Central Intake, a program that introduces those facing homelessness to programs of support, Salvation Army’s Red Shield Lodge, Arch’s Trust House and Salvation Army’s Angel Tree.

“Our community has many programs in place from financial assistance and case management to shelter and affordable housing so that any experience with homelessness is brief and nonrecurring,” DeVries says.

If you, or someone you know are facing the holiday season with a degree of uncertainty, DeVries recommends calling 211, where they folks answering the phones will refer you to a range of programs and resources.

Other Articles From The December 2017 Issue