Things Fall Apart: Virginia Homelessness Up 7%

Homeless encampment outside of Dale City. Photo credit: NBC4 Washington.

by James A. Bacon

An estimated 5,335 people lived in homeless shelters in Virginia in 2021, a 7% increase from the previous year, according to an article in Stacker, a national nonprofit news source. The Old Dominion ranked 10th nationally in the size of its percentage increase since 2020.

Nationally, the number of people living in shelters declined 8%. What those numbers apparently do not include, however, is the number of unsheltered homeless — those living on the streets or in the woods.

Here is Stacker’s commentary:

After the pandemic’s eviction moratorium ended in June 2022, Virginia saw a spike in people losing their homes and going to court to fight evictions. Pandemic-related funding for transitional hotel housing for people experiencing homelessness also ended, leaving many to return to the streets or find shelter elsewhere. A shortage of space in emergency shelters is an ongoing issue in parts of the state, where waitlists to get into some facilities are in the hundreds. The closure of seasonal hypothermia shelters further contributed to a rise in unsheltered unhoused people.

The problem with homeless policy across the country is that it is reactive. It addresses symptoms, not causes.

There are many roots of homelessness. One is the soaring cost of housing and rent. As we have noted in Bacon’s Rebellion before, real estate prices have risen more rapidly in Virginia’s major metros than almost anywhere on the East Coast since 2010. Successive administrations have failed to increase the supply of housing, and advocates for the poor have focused their efforts on fighting evictions rather than expanding more affordable shelter such as single-room occupancy (SROs).

Another is the increase in mental illness. Mentally ill people are far more likely to be homeless than those who are sound of mind. American society is experiencing a collective mental breakdown, and public policy seems powerless to stop it. 

Throwing money at the problem doesn’t help. No state fire-hoses the homeless with more dollars than California, and nowhere has homelessness become such a scourge. Impossible-to-eradicate homeless camps have become hellholes of open-air drug dealing, overdoses, crime and unsanitary conditions. Don’t think for a minute that what is happening there can’t happen here. There are plenty of people in Virginia who share the same social-justice premises that animate the failed homeless policies of California.

The doable part of the solution is to reform zoning laws and comprehensive plans that restrict various forms of affordable housing — SROs, granny flats, tiny homes, container homes, and the like. The issues aren’t complex. We know what causes the problem, and the legislative action required to fix it is conceptually simple (even if it is politically difficult). That would help the transient homeless who need to put a roof over their heads while they get their lives straightened out.

Treating mental illness is a different story. There are a myriad of ethical and moral questions that must be resolved before any policy can be settled upon. Foremost among them: what if a mentally ill person doesn’t want to take his or her medications? What if a drug abuser refuses to enter a sobriety program? What if someone wants to live homeless? What right does the state have to compel these people to do what’s best for them against their wishes?

There are no any easy answers to such questions, although it’s hard to imagine any government action leading to worse consequences than the mass squalor we see on the West Coast. The time to sort through these thorny questions is now, not when Richmond starts looking like San Francisco and Northern Virginia resembles L.A.

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20 responses to “Things Fall Apart: Virginia Homelessness Up 7%”

  1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “After the pandemic’s eviction moratorium ended in June 2022, Virginia saw a spike in people losing their homes and going to court to fight evictions.”

    That’s capitalism for ya… 🤷‍♂️

    1. how_it_works Avatar

      I put my rental property on the market and sold it. It’s now owner-occupied.

      One of the reasons I did that was the eviction moratorium.

    2. Everyone who was ‘protected’ by the moratorium knew it could/would not last forever, yet large numbers of them failed to plan for the day when they would once again have to pay for their own housing.

      1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
        Eric the half a troll

        As I said… capitalism…

        1. Right. Poor planning on their part is capitalism’s fault. Sure it is…

          Being a socialist is fine for rich people like you, and I’m sure the smug feeling of self satisfaction it allows you to exhibit makes it worthwhile. However, personally, I am nowhere near wealthy enough to dabble in something as dangerous to my bank account as socialism.

          1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
            Eric the half a troll

            Yes, because everybody in Europe is rich…. smh… (I’m not, btw, still working day in/day out)

    3. DJRippert Avatar

      I think you should be a good socialist, give up all your worldly possessions and live off what the government decides you should receive. Time to walk the walk buddy.

      1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
        Eric the half a troll

        Are you saying you are ready to fund a socialist system of government in the US then….?… that would be progress to be sure…

        1. I think he was saying that you appear ready to fund a socialist system of government – and then ‘reap’ its benefits.

        2. I think he was saying that you appear ready to fund a socialist system of government – and then reap its ‘benefits’.

          1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
            Eric the half a troll

            If he is saying I should be a Socialist, it means it’s is not just me funding the Socialist system of government… it is him too… otherwise… Capitalism… (i.e., every man for themself… sink or swim… I’ve got mine, the rest of you can starve for all I care…).

          2. LarrytheG Avatar

            The difference between 3rd world countries and developed countries.

            starting with public education and public health.

      2. Matt Adams Avatar
        Matt Adams

        “Socialist” are only socialists with other peoples money. When it comes to their own, it’s off limits.

        They are also very bad at economics.

  2. Lefty665 Avatar

    “American society is experiencing a collective mental breakdown, and public policy seems powerless to stop it.”

    Public policy these days all too often seems to be a reflection of our decomposition rather than an effort to stop it. That’s in my more optimistic moments.

    De-institutionalization of many people with mental illness was badly needed and long overdue when it was initiated in the ’70s. However, the proposition that funding should follow those discharged to provide local and less restrictive services has never materialized even as discharge of people with ever more severe mental illness accelerated. We have made a helluva mess.

    The proliferation of homeless encampments with the resulting disease and crime are highly visible demonstrations of our failure to care for those who are unable to care for themselves. That is a national, state and local disgrace, and but one among many.

    1. how_it_works Avatar

      Give ’em $750/month via SSI (probably EVERY homeless person could qualify for SSI) and somehow they’ll use that money to procure food and shelter by making decisions about how to responsibly spend that money.

      How about given them $0/month and putting them in a group home or something?

  3. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    Petersburg is attempting to use the abandoned cottages for the cognitively challenged at Central State Hospital to support homeless families. Although a great idea, it is a job to 1. find the funding, 2. the support, and 3. maneuver all of the regulations and paperwork. Great idea, hard to implement. The cottages have a kitchen, family room and separate bedrooms with bathrooms. Couldn’t be better. They are literally, going to waste. They have a park, walking area, and lots of green space.

    1. I would think the state government would jump at a chance to support such an effort.

    2. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      Those houses are on hallowed ground. Thousands died taking the nearby positions of Fort Gregg and Whitworth on the last day of Petersburg.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’m a bit of a skeptic that affordable housing , a lack of, is the issue with homelessness. I won’t say none but I do wonder how many of the homeless have jobs and/or are actually employable, i.e. they have the skills and work record that make them appealing to employers. If you are unreliable, do not follow instructions, can’t get along with others, etc, “affordable housing is not the issue nor is mental illness.

    But we do not want to “reward” these folks so when push comes to shove, we’d rather deny them a taxpayer-funded place to live and let them roam the streets instead.

    I’m not advocating one way or the other, just trying to state the problem.

    It’s not just a big city problem. We have that problem in Fredericksburg, not a big city at all. We have a group called Micah that works to find housing for the homeless but no one wants that housing anywhere near them – not businesses, not homeowners. They want them “elsewhere” like in the parks, under the bridges and in the medians begging for money.

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