Dear friends of OCP
I’m sure that most of you have seen OCP in the DNR, Hburg Citizen, and WHSV over the last few weeks. So what happened around homelessness in our area?  How was it impacting our community? And what’s the most current situation at OCP? Lots of people have been asking me questions and I’ve heard rumors floating around town. I want to tell you what I know and dispel some of the incorrect assumptions that have been circulating in our community.
First, what happened?

Over the last few months since Open Doors closed, a number of things have happened that has increased public awareness of homelessness in Harrisonburg. One is that people have turned to panhandling to try to gain a little bit of cash for food and other needs. Over the last year people who have stayed in wooded areas around town and on the edge of the county have been forced out by landowners. About five weeks ago churches downtown began to ask people to leave their properties. Police at the time told them to go to OCP under the mistaken understanding that we were providing shelter. We notified the police that this was not correct, and they stopped. The board of OCP agreed to support staff in our efforts to provide temporary shelter while we sought funding for a temporary supervised and safe overnight program, to last only until Open doors opened in November. Subsequently we found out that the city would not allow OCP to shelter people due to zoning regulations. A local organization offered 1/3 of the funding and challenged the city and county to match that. However, without a place to keep people, the city and county would not continue to discuss funding. City officials also told us that if we (or the city or county) found a building and zoned B2 or M1 (commercial or industrial zoning), we could host people on a temporary three-month basis. Despite numerous inquiries, we have been unable to locate such a property to host people over night from 9 PM to 7 AM.  If you know of such a property, have the owner contact OCP to discuss options with us. Then we can continue our fundraising efforts and challenge the city and county to contribute. 
During this time, several people offered their assistance to volunteer in the evenings. Jake Krug, one of those volunteers, sent me the following note the next morning:
Hi Sam, 
Everything went very smoothly last night. I met a lot of amazing people and there were no major incidents. Someone had a panic attack at night but I talked to them for a while to make sure they were alright and could get back to sleep. Pete fell out of the chair he was sleeping in. I walked over to make sure he was alright and got the pillow under his head. There was a minor fight that happened with a few of the guys in the corner by Mason/Main. I ran over and asked them what was up and I think my presence diffused the situation. They both backed down and self-separated and there were no more problems after that. Another man ambled around at around midnight. I walked over and spoke to him to see what was up. He was threatened by me at first but after talking with him and telling him that we’re all here to be cool and get some sleep he relaxed, thanked me, and walked off. I ended up leaving around 1:30. I wanted to make sure people felt as safe as possible. The stories I heard last night from these wonderful people shook me to my core and I will do everything I can to help OCP and the homeless community out. If you ever need anything from individuals or our organization, we’ll be there. You and your organization are literally doing God’s work. Thanks, Jake
Second, what is the current situation?

The board of OCP agreed to a temporary program through the end of July. Without city approval and without further funding, it was impossible for us to continue to allow overnight sleeping on our property unsupervised. Since that time we have asked people to leave the property and to do the best they can. People are staying in parks, gullies, along Blacks Run, or just in the bushes. We are working hard, along with Strength In Peers and Mercy House, to find temporary and permanent housing for these folks. We deeply appreciate the emotional, voluntary, and financial support that the community has offered in support of our efforts. 
In the short term, as our population grows we need adequate year-round shelter. And the police need to continue to support people by not trespassing them off of city and county properties. In the medium term we need more affordable housing, along with support programs such as a local detox and drug rehab program so people don’t have to be sent to Richmond or Northern VA for those services. Businesses and landlords should be involved in the process, and JMU’s involvement is critical since the increase in students, in combination with no housing policies to manage market incentives, has shifted low income housing stock into student housing, meaning low income people in our area have fewer and fewer affordable options.
Finally, questions and rumors:
“Homeless people are fighting downtown.” Undoubtedly this has happened. It is not new, however. OCP has dealt with this issue every year since Ron Copeland started the soup kitchen at The Little Grill in 1992. Maybe there has been an uptick downtown but OCP has not noticed this on our property, and the police chief has repeatedly stated that downtown is safe. I know most of the panhandlers and I know the elderly men sleeping downtown. I am comfortable with them and have many friendships. If people are uncomfortable around homeless folks, then please talk to them. Get to know them a bit. They are complex people just like the rest of us.
“Homeless people are killing animals downtown.” This one has gotten a lot of media attention, unfortunately. The general implication is wrong. What happened is that a local gentleman who often works with the homeless went on vacation and left his dog with a homeless couple. However, the couple had disabilities and was not up to managing the dog’s needs. It became ill, they could not afford going to the vet, they took it to Denton Park fountain for water, and it died there. 
“Many people are coming to our area from out of town because we have so many services.” This is not accurate. I recently did a survey of those homeless at an OCP meal. 16 of 19 individuals/couples had long term ties to the local area or had come here for jobs they were already hired for. Open Doors and Mercy House have also shared data with the city manager that indicate 83% to almost 100% of services are to local folks. I have lived in NJ, FL, SC, DC, and VA. My brother, who has schizophrenia, has lived in these places too and received mental health and supportive housing in each place. If my brother ended up homeless on the streets of LA or Seattle or Charlottesville, I hope people would take care of him even though he hadn’t lived there all his life. We need to all have a sense of care for one another regardless of where people are from. 
“Panhandlers are organized from out of town.” I don’t know all of the panhandlers, but I know most of them. They are long term OCP community members. If there are folks from outside Harrisonburg they are trying to make a few bucks to make ends meet just like the rest of us. I’ve talked to these folks. Rarely do they make more than $20 – $40/day. Often much less. Usually it’s for food, sometimes cigarettes or a beer. Ultimately it’s your money and your decision whether or not to give to panhandlers, so follow your conscience. The most important thing you can do is give a kind word of greeting or encouragement. That means more than money! 
Sam Nickels