Charlottesville-area advocates for the homeless rise to the occasion

Charlottesville-area advocates for the homeless rise to the occasion

A mother, her son in a stroller, sits in the front row and quietly talks with a couple of friends.

From the stage, once the altar of the historic First Christian Church on the corner of Market and First streets in downtown Charlottesville, an older man’s chainsaw snore competes with the throaty tussiculation of a young woman.

Downstairs, The Haven’s day room is busy with folks who have chosen the noise and warmth of the shelter over the subfreezing cold outside.

A week of frigid highs, brisk winds with harsh wind chills and nighttime lows in single digits has been inhospitable to the homeless. But local organizations and people are working to provide warmth, safety and food to the vulnerable.

“We usually close at noon because we’re just a temporary shelter. We’re here to get people connected, to get their needs met. But when it’s this frigid, we make the decision to stay open,” said Diana Boeke, The Haven’s community engagement director.

She spoke in hushed tones to not wake those sleeping.

“It’s a very busy time of year to be staying in a shelter. You’re warm, but it’s nothing like a hotel. You’re in a room with 30, maybe 40 other people,” Boeke said. “Some people may have mental health issues that can be disruptive of sleep. Some people may have issues with another person that makes them feel unsafe. There’s snoring and coughing, and it can be hard to get a good night’s sleep. That’s why you’ve got people who are still dead tired in the middle of the day, and we really don’t have issues with folks trying to get a few more hours of sleep.”

Near the U.S. 250 Bypass and Hydraulic Road, Karen Allen handed Rebekah Bobrek a sack lunch and a blanket. Allen, who lives on a fixed and limited income, has taken on the job of providing a lunch to those standing on street corners.

 “I’ve always been just the next paycheck away from homelessness, and thanks to the generosity of my parents, it didn’t happen,” Allen said. “I could identify with the desperation it takes to be standing out there on a street corner holding a sign.”

With desperation just outside her door, Allen said she felt the need to help those whose doors didn’t hold. That feeling grew stronger after the Aug. 12 Unite the Right rally that ended in violence and death, she said.

“After Aug. 12, we had haters and the people who hated the haters,” she said. “There was so much hating, so much negativity, that I felt overwhelmed. I passed people on street corners and thought, ‘It would take just a little love by someone to give something to those people.’ Then I thought that maybe, with some love, I could get through all the hate.”

Three times a week, Allen packages homemade sandwiches, crackers, desserts, snacks and water and makes the rounds. She also tosses a $1 bill into the bag as a personal gift.

When the cold snap hit, Allen cooked hot foods like macaroni and cheese, chili and turkey soup.

“The benefit to them is a hot meal in the cold, but the benefit to me is much, much more,” Allen said. “You only get what you give away, and I feel so much better for trying to help, for doing something, even if there really isn’t much I can afford to do.”

Allen’s son has served as her delivery driver but soon will take a new job. To keep the program growing, she has sought assistance from Kroger and local cab companies, but she hasn’t heard from them.

She said she isn’t seeking monetary donations — unless it is in $1 bills for the lunch bags — but would take food for the lunches and time to help deliver them.

“I’m trying to change the world one street corner at a time,” she said, laughing.

Near the U.S. 250 Bypass and Hydraulic Road, Karen Allen handed Rebekah Bobrek a sack lunch and a blanket. Allen, who lives on a fixed and limited income, has taken on the job of providing a lunch to those standing on street corners.

 “I’ve always been just the next paycheck away from homelessness, and thanks to the generosity of my parents, it didn’t happen,” Allen said. “I could identify with the desperation it takes to be standing out there on a street corner holding a sign.”

With desperation just outside her door, Allen said she felt the need to help those whose doors didn’t hold. That feeling grew stronger after the Aug. 12 Unite the Right rally that ended in violence and death, she said.

“After Aug. 12, we had haters and the people who hated the haters,” she said. “There was so much hating, so much negativity, that I felt overwhelmed. I passed people on street corners and thought, ‘It would take just a little love by someone to give something to those people.’ Then I thought that maybe, with some love, I could get through all the hate.”

Three times a week, Allen packages homemade sandwiches, crackers, desserts, snacks and water and makes the rounds. She also tosses a $1 bill into the bag as a personal gift.

When the cold snap hit, Allen cooked hot foods like macaroni and cheese, chili and turkey soup.

“The benefit to them is a hot meal in the cold, but the benefit to me is much, much more,” Allen said. “You only get what you give away, and I feel so much better for trying to help, for doing something, even if there really isn’t much I can afford to do.”

Allen’s son has served as her delivery driver but soon will take a new job. To keep the program growing, she has sought assistance from Kroger and local cab companies, but she hasn’t heard from them.

She said she isn’t seeking monetary donations — unless it is in $1 bills for the lunch bags — but would take food for the lunches and time to help deliver them.

“I’m trying to change the world one street corner at a time,” she said, laughing.

One said a propane heater for his tent keeps him warm enough to stay at the camp full time.

The campers declined to give their names or have their photos taken and asked that their camp locations not be identified.

 “It can be hard for the average individual to comprehend, but there are some people who still choose to stay outside, even in this cold,” said Jayson Whitehead, executive director of PACEM.

PACEM is a seasonal shelter operated by People And Congregations Engaged in Ministry, a grassroots organization of 80 congregations that work collaboratively to provide for the homeless.

The shelter is open between October and April when temperatures hit dangerous lows. Those seeking shelter sign up at The Haven.

 “Homeless people often try to take care of other homeless people. It’s not unusual to hear someone say to another homeless person, ‘Hey, you’re going to PACEM tonight, right?’ You often see homeless people looking out for each other,” Whitehead said.

 “At this time of the year, we’re at or near our capacity on the men’s side of the shelter most nights. We’re allowed 45. The women’s shelter numbers are far lower. We had 16 the other night, which is high for us. We usually have about 12,” he said.

Whitehead said last week that he predicted PACEM being at peak occupancy over the weekend and until the daily low temperatures rise.

The Salvation Army takes our spillover when we’re at capacity,” he said. “They have a ‘warm room’ for us where people can have a warm place to be out of the weather.”

Whitehead said there is no single cause for people being homeless. For some, it’s economics. For others, it could be mental health or substance abuse issues.

“Some people have issues with rules, and others have trouble with a shelter environment with 40 people sleeping on cots. We are a low-barrier shelter, in that we don’t breathalyse or drug test, so we get a lot of those folks who would otherwise probably stay outside,” Whitehead said. “And that’s why we’re here.”