A house of cards: homelessness in williamsburg

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March 18, 2008

2:56 PM

__City official reflects on regional homelessness__

**[Part One of a Series]**

p. Pete Walentisch is building an imaginary house of cards with his hands on an empty table in Williamsburg’s Municipal Building.

p. Because — and on this point he is adamant — you can’t understand homelessness unless you compare an individual’s life to a house of cards.

p. Imagine each aspect of your life is one card. A card may be school, your family relationships, your friends etc. The closer a card to the foundation of your house of cards, the more important it is, because other cards rely on that card for support.

p. “When each of us confronts a problem, if the card is on top, chances are, the rest of what you dealt [underneath] for security is okay. It keeps the house standing,” he said, describing how a single crisis can result in homelessness. “If a card impacts tons of other cards, the whole house of cards starts to tumble.”

p. Walentisch oversees the Department of Human Services for the City of Williamsburg, which operates several programs that provide aid to the homeless in the Williamsburg area.

p. According to a November 2005 report from the various mayors and chairs of the Virginia peninsula, 1,034 individuals were identified as homeless in a head count made Jan. 26, 2005. Of those counted, nearly 30 percent had no form of temporary shelter on that particular night. Furthermore, 71 percent suffered from a mental illness or substance abuse disorder. Of the 1,034 identified, 282 were individuals with children.

p. Walentisch groups homeless individuals into three major categories: local residents who are facing life crises, transients who have nowhere to go, and discharges from local jails, mental institutions or other facilities who do not have the resources to find permanent residences.

p. “You can’t stereotype,” Walentisch said. “There are as many reasons [for homelessness] as there are homeless people. There’s extenuating circumstances in each individual and family that has brought them to homelessness.”

p. Despite a broad categorization of homelessness, each case is highly specific and requires specific attention to the complications that have led them to Human Services for help, he said.

p. “Human Services may help you pay for a few nights in a motel, help you find a job,” Walentisch said. “Then we’ll begin to assess other needs. You don’t solve a problem by putting someone in a motel for a few nights.”

p. According to a 2006 report given to the City Council, there are local contributing factors that affect individuals at risk for homelessness. These include the high cost of living in Williamsburg, lack of permanent employment opportunities and the high cost of childcare.

p. Typically, Human Services tries to move the homeless from temporary shelters to transitional housing, which may be subsidized by non-profit groups like the Salvation Army. Those in one of the 104 citywide public housing units are offered rent at 30 percent of their income.

p. In the first five months of 2005, the United Way of Greater Williamsburg had 108 requests for temporary shelter. Twenty percent of these petitions had made requests in the city prior to moving into the county. According to the Peninsula report, from 1997 to 2005 there was a consistent shortage of beds for both individuals and families seeking shelter. This gap expanded during the spring and summer months when winter shelters were closed.

p. Ultimately, the homelessness problem faced by the Peninsula is just a microcosm of homelessness throughout the country. Because each case of homelessness is unique, there is no effective blanket response that will solve the problem, Walentisch said.

p. “The goal is to get a family to a point of stability,” Walentisch said.

p. This means a secure income, housing, daycare, education and, in many cases, medical care or substance abuse therapy for the individual. However, he says Human Services can only provide so much, and for many people, the shattering effect homelessness has on self-esteem requires many social workers to help people rebuild one card at a time.

p. According to Walentisch, it takes a certain level of self-initiative on the part of the individual seeking help. The stabilization process can take anywhere from six months to years, and it is impossible for the city to provide all resources.

p. “We can’t do it alone. Partnerships with other public organizations as well as private, also education and businesses, it involves everyone,” Walentisch said. “It is so easy for the cards to collapse; you have to show sensitivity to what led to the collapse. You help rebuild, and it’s easy to be supportive, but what do you do?”

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