Part Two of a Series on Homelessness in and around Williamsburg
p. They start the day with a prayer. Whoever wants to speak can.
Each takes a minute to invoke their thanks, calling on God to bless their work and help them help others. They sit around a small conference table in the back room of Greensprings Chapel on Ironbound Road. It is a rare moment of quiet reflection.
p. “It’s a big job to keep this operation going,” Lee Akers, executive director of Vibrant Life Ministries, said. “We’ve got people living in the woods in Williamsburg.”
p. VLM works with its homeless clients by assisting them in their efforts to find permanent housing, employment and, as a faith-based organization, spiritual or religious conviction.
Non-profit groups and faith-based organizations like VLM play a major role in combating homelessness nationwide. The Salvation Army, the United Way and countless churches and charities make it their mission to fundamentally shift how homelessness is perceived in communities.
p. According to Akers and Dennis Grannan, VLM’s board president and founder, many people are willing to acknowledge the problem but would not like to see it in their own backyards. VLM has moved the location of its temporary shelters four times in less than four years.
p. Further complicating matters is the necessity of separate shelters for single men, single women and those with families. Although the separation is necessary, it makes the establishment of permanent shelters for those in need more difficult, as three would be required.
p. According to Grannan, Williamsburg and other localities tried to push the problem away for years, essentially buck-passing the homeless from city to county to city. VLM was forced to leave campgrounds in Charles and James City Counties following the sale of the land.
p. Currently, the ministry is sheltering men in motel rooms and houses in Williamsburg and, according to Akers, “hoping the good Lord will bless us … with some property at the White Lion Motel” for families in need of temporary or transitional housing.
However, temporary shelter composes only a part of what VLM provides.
p. “People come to us with no hope,” Grannan said. He added that the first step in rehabilitation is identifying whatever “big problem” ultimately led to a client’s homelessness.
p. As a Christian organization, VLM believes that to re-instill hope implies finding God, and attendance at Bible studies and church is mandatory during a client’s yearlong program.
p. In addition, clients take classes promoting self-reliance, clients are forbidden from using drugs or alcohol while involved with VLM, and clients must not stay out past 11 p.m.
p. After the first three months, clients are gradually given more responsibility. Grannan put the success rate of the program at approximately 70 percent, meaning the client has obtained permanent employment and housing.
p. Chris Bennett, who works for VLM, said the goal now is for the establishment of business ventures in which clients can train for permanent positions in the workforce.
p. Bennett originally designed the program for former convicts involved with prison or jail ministries, but his aims expanded when he was matched with Grannan. The goal is for any business ventures to provide 40 to 50 percent of the overhead for VLM.
Coincidentally, 40 to 50 percent of the homeless population is comprised of former inmates, according to Bennett.
Williamsburg Human Services restricts VLM from assisting those convicted of violent or sex offenses.
p. Those suffering from active addictions, mental disabilities and illnesses requiring the administration of medicine are referred to services in Richmond that are better equipped to handle these types of cases.
p. “We help the cream of the crop of [the] homeless,” Grannan said.
p. As of now, VLM takes referrals for clients from as many as 67 churches, in addition to Williamsburg Human Services and the police and fire departments.
p. The prayer concludes a little before 10 a.m. and welcomes the start of the day.
p. One client has already been on the phone; Akers is sitting at the desk. The client in question has been in and out of the program before and may be at risk of losing his motel room. Akers quietly hangs up.
p. “He’s not willing to make a commitment to change,” Akers said. “The door’s open; don’t know how long it’ll stay open.”