Charlottesville’s homeless shelter staff say demand for beds this winter is double what they can accommodate

A hall with mats, cots and folding chairs, with people's belongings and backpacks.

The aroma of cheesesteak subs and onion rings wafted through the rec room of Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church on Emmet Street last Wednesday evening. About a dozen people sat around folding tables, talking about how good the food was while watching a basketball game on TV or playing cards.

“This place is a godsend,” said Roger Eubanks, a guest in the congregate shelter run by People And Congregations Engaged in Ministries (PACEM, pronounced “pah-chum”). He took a sip of orange-pink punch from a plastic cup. “It’s a place where I can lay my head at night, get food in my stomach. Instead of being on the streets, it’s a place where we can go.”

But Eubanks was lucky to get a cot and a meal that night. This winter, the roughly 100 overnight shelter beds available in the area have not been not enough for everyone who needs one, say local shelter directors — the demand is nearly double that. 

It’s difficult to know exactly how many people in the Charlottesville area are currently experiencing homelessness. Each year, the Blue Ridge Area Coalition for the Homeless (BRACH) conducts a “point-in-time” count of unhoused people on a single night in January. They’re not exact, but they try to reach all people living outside and in shelters.

Stop overlooking it. Have empathy. You’re looking at their cover but you have not read that book. You have not read a page. 

—Brenda Smith, resident shelter and kitchen manager at the Salvation Army in Charlottesville

BRACH has not yet released the 2023 numbers. In 2022, 260 people in the Charlottesville area — that includes the city, Albemarle, Fluvanna, Louisa, Greene and Nelson counties — were experiencing homelessness, up from 177 in 2021. That’s the highest number since 2010, according to the BRACH report.

Based on what both PACEM and the Salvation Army have seen this winter, they say the number of people experiencing homelessness is likely going up.

PACEM and the Salvation Army have about 100 emergency shelter beds between them, scattered across a few locations in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

More about homelessness in Charlottesville

The Salvation Army’s year-round shelter on Ridge Street has the single largest capacity, with room for about 55 people housed dormitory-style in bunk beds. It has some additional capacity in its two warm rooms — where people can stay on bedrolls or in sleeping bags on the floor — but that’s supposed to be a very last resort.

Both shelters have some ad-hoc options as well. And in the colder months, from late fall to early spring, PACEM adds about 25 beds with its congregate-style shelter where guests stay on individual cots or bed rolls in the same room. Every two weeks, the shelter moves to a different church or community center. In late February, they were at Wesley Memorial, where congregants sometimes helped serve meals and sat to chat with shelter guests. Beds are first come first serve, and PACEM doesn’t turn anyone away, which means “getting creative with our space,” said shelter operations Liz Nyberg.

They’re often squeezing in more than 25 people, and when they’re truly maxed out, they send folks to the Salvation Army’s warm room. Last week, there were about 10 people in the warm rooms, said Smith.

There’s no simple explanation for it. 

The end of pandemic relief programs is one likely culprit, Jayson Whitehead, PACEM executive director, wrote in an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow. There’s no more rental assistance and the eviction moratorium was lifted in summer 2022. Federal funding for sheltering people in hotels is waning quickly. Temporary increases in food assistance ended in February, placing more financial strain on people.

“There are added stressors from inflation, especially as regards to housing here,” Whitehead added. “Landlords are selling their properties or raising rents, requiring high credit [scores] and no criminal backgrounds. And we don’t even deal with families — this is for single adults or adult-only households.”

The back of a person with a long ponytail, sitting at a folding table eating.
People And Congregations Engaged in Ministry (PACEM) shelter guests eat dinner together at folding tables in the Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church social hall in February. Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow

This year is also unusual in that the demand for shelter hasn’t been affected by the mild winter, said Whitehead. Usually, lower temperatures mean high demand, and mild temps mean mild demand. Other than a few dangerously cold days in late December, this winter has been a fairly mild one. And yet, the number of people asking for shelter has been consistent, no matter the weather, said Whitehead.

Brenda Smith, resident shelter and kitchen manager at the Salvation Army, agrees that there are “definitely not” enough shelter beds. She sees many of the same things Whitehead and Nyberg describe, but she sees something else, too: More people are moving here without a place to live.

More and more, Smith meets people who are new not just to the shelter, but to Charlottesville. When she asks them why they came here, they tell her, “I heard jobs are plentiful here.”

“Yes,” she tells them, “but have you heard about the housing?”

On top of that, PACEM staff are seeing increased drug use among individuals seeking shelter. And, all shelters report seeing more single women than ever before. No one is quite sure why.

What they are sure of is that without the addition of inexpensive and free housing that includes support services, the number of unhoused people in the area isn’t likely to fall drastically any time soon.

There are a few potential solutions in the works, but they’re going to take some time.

Virginia Supportive Housing and Piedmont Housing Alliance will soon build about 150 apartments for low-income residents and families over the next few years, and many (but not all) of the people currently served by the Salvation Army and PACEM will likely qualify to live there. 

But starting on that construction means tearing down what’s there — the old Red Carpet Inn, now called Premier Circle, the site of PACEM’s emergency shelter for seniors and the medically vulnerable. PACEM staff knew the shelter would be temporary, so they worked hard to get as many Premier Circle guests as possible into permanent housing. But a few people will be left with nowhere to go when those buildings are torn down for the VSH and PHA projects, and it will be at least a couple of years before new space will be available. And that’s if they qualify to live there.

During roughly that same time, the Salvation Army hopes to start on a massive renovation project at its Ridge Street location. With that renovation, the organization plans to at least double its shelter capacity by having more than 100 beds, plus apartments. But that, too, will take time. According to an NBC29 report about the project, there are a few options, but no decision yet about how to do this without displacing current shelter guests.

PACEM and its other partners in the Premier Circle project are trying to figure out the same thing at their site.

Smith sees an opportunity for more wealthy community members to help, too.

Whenever she sees an empty building, she envisions it as a home for shelter guests. For the doctor who lost everything after paying for his wife’s cancer treatment, including his wife. The person who worked hard to save up for a first month’s rent and a security deposit while living in the shelter, only to have all of his applications rejected for poor credit and no rental history.

A small hallway with mats and belongings lined up.
Space in the shelter is first come first serve, but PACEM frequently has to get creative with space in order to serve everyone who asks for a spot. For example, this hallway at Wesley Memorial was an opportunity for PACEM to serve more than the 25 guests who fit in the larger room. Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow

“It makes me sad. It makes me angry. It makes me want to throw my hands up,” she said. 

“I think it’s a caring thing. I think it’s an acknowledgement thing,” Smith said. She feels that the money to help is there — this is a wealthy community — but the desire to truly help unhoused people is not. There’s a stigma attached to being unhoused, but she wants people to know that “all homeless people are not lazy.”

“Life happens to everybody and we’re all just one bad decision away,” Smith said.

Roger Eubanks, the PACEM winter shelter guest, said that “unfortunate circumstances” are what led him to homelessness. He’s frustrated that “you can’t survive on one job here anymore.” He grew up here and remembers when that was possible, when rents were lower and it wasn’t so difficult to find an apartment.

Eubanks has been homeless for about two years and with PACEM for nearly two months. He has also stayed in the Salvation Army shelter. He hopes to move into supportive housing soon.

The pandemic put a lot of stress on his fellow shelter guests, as well as the staff, he said, and he would like to see more mental health care resources in the area. Based on what he’s seen, he thinks that would help a lot of people who are already living on the streets, and maybe prevent others from getting to that point.

The woman sitting next to Eubanks tapped him on the shoulder and gestured to the pack of cigarettes on the table. Eubanks loosened one by tapping the pack on his palm and handed it to her as she headed to the door.

At the same time, churchgoers started to trickle out of the chapel. They were yards from the rec room door, and if they were aware of the people their church was sheltering, they didn’t show it. Not one glanced that way.

This is the “acknowledgement issue” Smith said. “Stop overlooking it. Have empathy. You’re looking at their cover but you have not read that book. You have not read a page.”