World Homeless Day

As the calendar turns to October we see the changing of the leaves, the return of our favorite sweater, and our social media feeds inundated with posts and memes of pumpkin lattes. We may be enjoying this fall more than others in the past as we have just recently begun to come out of our isolation like Punxsutawney Phil. As we look around to see whether the world resembles what it was 18 months ago, or more like the landscape from 12 Monkeys (ok I promise that was the last 1990s movie reference) we are taking stock of how this has affected us. Particularly how we feel mentally. Many of us have been cut off from loved ones, work, and places we would frequent to help alleviate our stress. The CDC reports that since the beginning of the pandemic that adults have experienced a disproportionately high increase of mental health issues. The drastic rise in depression, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation creates an increased strain on the already overburdened mental health profession.

The Homeless Population has long carried the banner for those that struggle with mental health and what Volunteers of America Chesapeake & Carolinas (VOACC) have experienced here at the Loudoun Homeless Service Center over the past few months should raise an alarm. With October 10th being World Homeless Day, please bear with me as I try and explain how the struggles of those that thought it could get no worse have in fact… by a lot.

When people think about the homeless during quarantine it provokes a lot of thoughts/questions. How does someone without a home quarantine? If they don’t have a home anyway, does it really matter? A lot of places were placing homeless in hotels, isn’t that a dream for them? Of course, an individual without a place to stay is going to be adversely affected when everyone is told to “stay home.” The truth is though, that is just the tip of the iceberg and the issues go so much deeper. First, yes it does matter whether they have a home. The thought that because they were sleeping on the street before the pandemic and they were sleeping on the street during the pandemic does not equate to individuals still having the same status quo. Those who live in the elements rely on places like libraries, parks, medical facilities, non-profits, houses of worship, and other places to meet their needs. With those places closed or limiting access, the few resources available to those in need became even more scarce. Even the Shelter that was always available to individuals in the past had to limit its availability. Yes, a lot of the overflow, particularly of families were placed into hotels, but this was far from a dream come true. While they were safe they were isolated and given only a finite amount of time to find other lodgings. Most of this work had to be done with a case manager via phone calls as face-to-face interactions were limited. This increased the difficulty of households successfully transitioning out of homelessness and increasing the feelings of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

The households placed in hotels were not the only ones who struggled with the world closed around them. Individuals on the street and in the shelter lost most of the human interactions they relied on. Volunteers were no longer allowed in shelters, eliminating one of the few times those experiencing homelessness could see and feel the compassion the human spirit can elicit. We forget how much it means to those that feel abandoned to be handed a sandwich from a stranger, just because.

The biggest issue that faced those that struggle with finding stable housing was the complete lack of mental health access. In a world that went completely virtual, those that could not participate were left behind. Without access to the internet or smartphones and libraries closed, how were individuals able to access online appointments with doctors and therapists to address their health needs? They didn’t. This means many of those we have served and worked to stabilize has had over a year with no access to the medical and mental health care they desperately need. The end result is we are seeing the population access our programs with greater needs than at any time I can remember in my 20 years working in human services.

It is not all doom and gloom, however. With all these increased challenges VOACC has taken it upon ourselves to rise to the challenge of those in need. Our staff here at Loudoun Homeless Services is increasing its staff training to include more Trauma Informed Management. We have re-engaged our community partners and volunteers and have already begun to see a change in the population we serve. We have worked with local medical professionals to bring them onsite to provide free medical and mental health screenings and prescriptions to help those we serve to stabilize. VOACC continues to work closely with local landlords, the county, Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development to find safe affordable places for individuals to obtain and begin to fully heal. While we are making a dent in the issues, we cannot do it alone. I call on everyone to reach out to your local non-profits to see what you can do to assist because what is happening in Loudoun is not unique. It is an issue everywhere, but with your help and compassion we can keep Zuul from returning (I kept my promise, Ghostbusters was from the 80s.) In all seriousness, as the cold weather begins to encompass us, the warmth of the human spirit is needed now more than ever. Please join us in our fight to end homelessness.