Homeless in our own backyard

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November 16, 2006

10:38 PM

There are so many microwave dinner trays under the leaves that anyone walking into the woods hears his footsteps crunch for 100 feet. Further along, a filthy carpet and skeleton of a bike frame lie half-buried. Everywhere, the ground is scattered with beer cans and Tupperware containers.

p. For many living on the fringes of Williamsburg, this is home.

p. These woods, behind the Food Lion at James York Plaza, are the first stop on Williamsburg Homeless and Indigent’s “Reality Tour,” designed to expose the reality of homelessness in Williamsburg.

p. As Founder and Director Patti McKenzie leads 11 students from the College and one reporter from the Toano-Norge Times through the woods in an intermittent downpour, she calls brightly, “Is anybody cold?”

p. “Yes!” choruses the group.

p. She smiles. “Good!”

p. Wearing only a T-shirt and jeans herself, McKenzie scoffs when her husband Geoff offers her a jacket. She considers the weather a blessing. “If it would’ve been beautiful and sunny, I would’ve canceled the tour,” she said. After all, if the homeless have to be outside in weather like this past Sunday’s, so too should her tour-goers, according to her logic.

p. McKenzie’s organization — as well as her personal philosophy — are built on this kind of thinking. At age four, she gave homeless children food, and, years later, invited 24 homeless people into her own house. Now, she runs a non-profit organization whose central tenet is: ask the homeless what they need and then give it to them. WHI has helped the homeless find food, permanent housing and employment largely through the personal efforts and finances of the McKenzies, even before acquiring its non-profit status in 2004.

p. The Reality Tour kicks off National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week, which culminates tomrrow with a 5K run at 10 a.m. and a panel of homeless speakers at 4 p.m. in Blair 229.
Based on the number of Thanksgiving dinners ordered, there are at least 600 to 800 homeless individuals in the greater Williamsburg area according to WHI. The majority are single men and, increasingly, families, according to Patti McKenzie. Though the Avalon Shelter for women may also take in the homeless, Williamsburg has no shelter exclusively for the homeless. It is, in fact, the only city in Virginia without one, she said. Some homeless squat on town property, while others find semi-permanent homes in motels or trailer parks.

p. The number in the latter group has been falling, Patti explains at the next stop, a trailer park turned vacant lot. Over the past two years, she said, some 20 motels and trailer parks frequented by the homeless have closed down or sold to larger chains. Why? “It’s easier to get money from tourists than it is from the homeless,” she said. The lot on the tour used to be Rose’s Trailer Park, home to 50 trailers, until the owner sold the property a year and a half ago. Because of a law forbidding relocation of trailers 10 years or older, the majority of those evicted left with only the clothes on their backs.

p. Who are the homeless? They are newspaper delivery men. They are cashiers at Wawa. They are janitors in Colonial Williamsburg. And, McKenzie tells her shocked audience, they are cafeteria workers at the College.

p. “You never know who’s going to be homeless who’s serving you,” she said.

p. Because Williamsburg is a tourist town, many of the homeless work seasonal jobs at attractions such as Busch Gardens and Colonial Williamsburg. These jobs often disqualify them from receiving aid. James City County’s Homeless Intervention Program, for example, requires applicants seeking loans to hold full-time jobs.

p. WHI, a much smaller organization, attempts to work closer to the ground, getting right into the woods and under the bridges to befriend homeless individuals. “We believe if you spend more than five minutes with someone who’s homeless, you might have a new friend,” she said.

p. Her husband, Geoff, was homeless when she met and married him in 2001. “He doesn’t look like someone you’d think would be homeless,” she said of Geoff, who holds a Masters in Opera from Converse College.

p. McKenzie founded WHI after she and Geoff moved from South Carolina to Williamsburg in 2002. One night several months after moving, a homeless figure in a dream told McKenzie she was brought to Williamsburg for a reason. Believing the figure may have been an angel, she decided this reason was to help the homeless after reading a Virginia Gazette article titled “Homeless Defy Easy Solution.”

p. With the help of the article’s writer, she tracked down the area’s homeless, handing them bagged lunches along with invitations to move in with her. After Hurricane Isabel struck in 2003, the number of people staying in her house rose steadily, leveling off around 24. But the landlord failed to renew the couple’s lease after she had an argument with a visiting social worker. So, the 24 homeless moved into the Captain John Smith motel — and so did McKenzie and her husband. Even though they could afford a house, they stayed in the motel for eight months until 19 of the 24 had found permanent housing.

p. “All we believe is that everybody deserves food; everybody deserves shelter,” McKenzie said.

p. No one should have to live, for example, under the Bypass Bridge, the second-to-last stop on the tour. It’s a dank space heavy with graffiti and trash; trains rushing by on the adjacent tracks generate gusts of wind that render it freezing, even in the summer. Here is where the McKenzies hope to hold a “Night Under the Bridge” in February, during which students at the College will be invited to spend 12 hours under the overpass, while the homeless who would normally sleep there stay in a motel. Each participant will be allowed to bring just one item — if a student brings a sleeping bag, for example, she cannot bring money for food.

p. Perhaps the students will resort to the dumpsters behind Food Lion, the last stop on the Reality Tour. Here, students find unopened bags of salad greens and sacks of green onions. Staring at the wilted leaves, they try to imagine needing to find dinner in a dumpster.

p. McKenzie hopes one day it won’t be so for anyone, at least in Williamsburg.

p. “I’m not going to quit until God says so,” she said, “and there’s no one here named God.”

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