“Without homes, everything else falls apart.”

― Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted (Pulitzer Prize winner)

Having been born into homelessness, I acutely understand a reality of Desmond’s quote. It’s one of the reasons I stepped into the new role of Housing Program Director at OCP. Like you, I envision a city and county where everyone has a stable, healthy place of their own to come home to and is treated with dignity and care no matter where they’re at in their journey. Said another way, a home is the foundation. This is one of the many reasons OCP pivoted into housing and launched the new Homelessness to Housing program last year.

While the pandemic has exacerbated wealth, health, and racial inequalities in our country and community, a few transformative things have come out of it. Thanks to city funding, visionary donors, and the statewide eviction moratorium, Our Community Place did something it wasn’t able to before: move a lot of people into stable homes. Working in close collaboration with local agencies like Strength in Peers, Mercy House, Open Doors, and HRHA, OCP’s new Housing Specialist and expanded case management team moved 47 people from homelessness to permanent housing in 2020. What is even more critical is that we also provided ongoing supportive housing services and community, to help folks remain in housing. 

While OCP is known for its community-centered, trauma-informed, and restorative approach to people, programming, and day shelter activities, our step into housing is a bold new direction. More than housing search and placement, we are pairing innovative housing models with local advocacy, fundraising, and deep collaboration. We plan to address systemic policy challenges alongside the individual, immediate support those marginalized in our community need most. We understand that removing barriers is just as important as overcoming them.

Given that 125-150 people are experiencing chronic homelessness on any day in Harrisonburg, placing 47 people into their own homes is extraordinary. But not enough. Unfortunately, with the pandemic winding down, resources for this work are too. This is one reason why we’re so grateful for our amazing agency partners, dedicated volunteers, foundations, CARES Act channels, and 577 donors who gave sacrificially to OCP. We also received $77,000 in restricted donations for the housing program and another $200,000 in commitments that will go towards the purchase of affordable housing for OCP community members. 

Here are a few housing program highlights as we look back on 2020 and forward this year:

Pivoted into housing support in 2020:

  • Helped to move 47 people into stable homes who were experiencing chronic homelessness.
  • Created a new OCP “Housing Assistance Fund” to provide gap funding, when other local resources are not available, that would allow a community member to move into permanent housing or to prevent eviction.
  • Delivered 47 home-warming gift bags to our newly housed community members.
  • Provided Supportive Housing Services to dozens of housed people.
  • Advocated for a Housing Trust Fund. After a yearlong community campaign for a Housing Trust Fund, the City is taking action. City staff have proposed a resolution that would begin the process for such a Fund. Last night, Tuesday Feb. 23rd, City Council approved the Resolution, so the process is finally started! A recent article in The Citizen breaks down the details of a Housing Trust Fund, and community advocates put out this Community Primer. If you are on-board, please continue to help us move this process along by 1) thanking your city council members for supporting the HTF resolution; 2) telling them we want to see the addition of a community stakeholder advisory board to the resolution; and 3) we want to see an ordinance for the Fund to be created THIS YEAR (2021)! Thanks. 
  • Hired a Housing Placement Specialist and Housing Program Director.

Looking forward, with hope, in 2021:

  • Keep people in their homes. In 2020, we helped to house one-third of our daily community members. In 2021, our goal is to keep them there. To do that, we are seeking funding to formalize our Supportive Housing Services, which is a proven intervention to maintain housing and health for people coming from chronic homelessness.
  • Housing Policy that works for everyone. City of Harrisonburg council and staff are undertaking two major housing projects this year, each with long-range housing implications for our community members and most vulnerable neighbors: the Comprehensive Housing Study (completed on Feb 3) and the Zoning Study. With an inclusive and solution-driven approach to advocacy, we will work to ensure that new programs and new zoning policies are created this year to better serve everyone, especially our most vulnerable neighbors.
  • Housing Models that are innovative, collaborative and community-based. Any new program requires great thinking and teamwork. We are pulling together colleagues across the community, and ideas across the state and country. We want to ensure that we’re utilizing the best models and practices to house our folks, models that align with OCP’s values and use resources creatively. We want to build on what we do best while working in deep collaboration with community partners. More to come as we develop our program! Know of an exciting housing project? Be in touch with me!
  • Equitable processes and outcomes. Thanks to a generous grant, OCP staff and board are undertaking a yearlong anti-oppression and anti-racism process. The timing couldn’t be better to help ensure that our Housing Program focuses on and builds in equity from the start. We’ve started with our data; collecting new information that pays attention to disparities across race, ethnicity and other critical areas.

And you’re invited. Because OCP has always done its work building community, in community. 

  • If you’d like to be involved with this work or find out more, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I’m happy to meet up over Zoom for a socially-distanced coffee/tea to talk more about this work. Email me at suzi@ourcommunityplace.org.
  • Want to learn more about our housing work and affordable housing locally? Sign up here to receive deeper-dive updates and news.

Together we can create lasting change to ensure everyone at OCP has a place to come home to and a community of support. As the new Housing Director, I’m thrilled to be a part of the OCP community and am excited to listen and learn, grow and become with you this year.

With hope,

Suzi Martinez Carter (she/her/ella)