homeless story edited

At the request of a visitor, Rodney volunteers to remove a box of donated towels from the trunk of a car in the parking lot of 110 Roanoke Street in Christiansburg.  The building houses four different agencies that offer help to homeless individuals and

By Pat Brown

Contributing Writer


The fact that clusters of homeless people are not visible in the New River Valley does not mean there are none here.

More than four dozen New River Valley residents were part of an official count that took place in January, and professionals who serve them estimate there were 78 by April.

Fortunately, a network of agencies work together to house and feed area families and individuals who have no shelter of their own. That network consists of the New River Family Shelter, the New River Valley Housing Partnership, the To Our House program, five community action offices throughout the area, the Women’s Resource Center in Radford and local churches.

Scheduling many of these efforts is Carol Johnson, program coordinator for New River Family

Shelter. A squad of social service agency employees joins her in helping to provide safe, warm shelter, meals and social interaction for individuals and families who have no access to beds, shelter and kitchens.

New River Family Shelter maintains four dwellings that can house five families. One structure is owned by a local church. The congregation has decided that making the house available to a homeless family is part of their mission, Johnson said. The other dwellings are rentals, and while each family may pay a nominal fee for rent, most of the costs are covered by the helping agencies and by donations.

“I like that the houses are not identifiable,” said Johnson.

The Women’s Resource Center in Radford assists homeless women and their children when domestic violence is a factor.

For the past 11 years, New River Community Action has helped maintain the To Our House program that serves single men and women. The unique program taps into the generosity of local churches to provide sleeping quarters from November to the end of the cold season.

“We learned (about the To Our House model) from a group out of Charlottesville,” Johnson said.

Here’s how it works. Support group employees develop a list of churches willing to house the homeless for seven or 14 nights. There are 14 spots for individuals on nights between November and the end of March. At the church, one volunteer congregation member remains with the visiting group for the entire night. Often more congregation members are present to provide social time during the evening.

Fourteen cots are set up, and out come sleeping bags and bed linens plus toiletries, washcloths and towels. Sixteen area churches serve as hosts, and a couple of dozen more churches offer assistance with food, laundry and fellowship activities. Some churches even have showers, and those that don’t arrange transportation to area aquatic or fitness centers where showers are available.

If the church has a kitchen, volunteers from the congregation might come in to cook a hot meal.

Regardless, those present are fed dinner and breakfast. As they leave, each person gets a bag lunch or a coupon for a fast-food lunch.

To help Johnson co-ordinate, one consistent contact at each church lines up donations of food, space, transportation and social activities. Sometimes one church offers space and another provides evening activities. Local church members have logged more than 5,000 volunteer hours helping the homeless,

“I can’t say enough about our churches and volunteers,” Johnson said.

At its beginning, the To Our House program served only men, but two seasons ago, it began including homeless women. “It has gone very smoothly,” said Johnson.

During the day, some of the people who are homeless go to work. Some look for work or keep appointments with social service offices and health care providers. Some of them used to visit local libraries. Others volunteer to help at To Our House with cleaning and donations deliveries.

“For the most part they just blend in” with the rest of the community, Johnson said.

A new grant will help the agencies work with people between the ages of 18 to 24 who are coping with substance abuse.

In addition, the group includes professionals who work closely with schools in the area to be sure that children in homeless families are getting the support they need, both before at-home learning began and during it. Under normal circumstances, they make every effort to see that a child can continue in his or her original school.

“The community is very good with donations,” said Casey Edmonds, a caseworker at the New

River Community Action office in Radford. “I think there are a lot of folks out there who really care.”

Local college students find ways to help, too, she said. “I think they want to be part of the community.”

Johnson recalled a delivery of food donations by a Virginia Tech ROTC group. “I have never seen so much stuff. The (To Our House) parking lot was full,” she said. An entire room there is designated as the pantry, and Community Action centers in the area maintain additional pantries.

The Montgomery County Emergency Assistance Program (MCEAP) has a store on Main Street in Christiansburg operated by volunteers. Homeless folks receive vouchers so they can go there to shop for clothing and household items. The store attracts shoppers from the community at large, as well.

The “season” for sheltering the homeless is usually November through March. During that time, social services employees are busy attempting to find permanent housing for the homeless people they serve. This year concerns about COVID 19 caused the To Our House program to be extended two weeks into April, Johnson said.

Financial contributions are tax deductible and can be mailed to To Our House Administrative

Offices, 110 Roanoke Street, Christiansburg, VA 24073.

New River Valley’s homeless citizens need bedding, washcloths, towels, socks and masks.

Year-round they need gift cards that provide a lunch at a fast food or other restaurant.

In the winter, the list grows to include gloves, warm hats, winter socks and scarves.

Also welcome are donations of kitchen equipment and food staples, cleaning supplies and toiletries. Call 540-321-6188 to arrange drop-offs.

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