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Homelessness 'a bigger problem than people realize in this area'

Wes Bunch • Feb 17, 2013 at 9:12 AM

GATE CITY — A recently completed survey for the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development found that there are nearly 200 homeless individuals living in a four-county area of Southwest Virginia as of last month.

The survey — which was carried out Jan. 24 by the Appalachian Community Action Agency — found that a total of 174 homeless people are currently living in Scott, Lee, Wise and Dickenson counties and the city of Norton.

A county-by-county breakdown was not immediately available Friday.

AppCAA Executive Director Angie Sproles said the number of homeless living in that four-county region jumped year over year, but she mostly attributed the increase to a change in the way the survey was done.

“It is significantly up from last year, and that’s because we did a better job of getting out in the community and counting them all,” Sproles said. “Last year, the survey wasn’t as in depth because we didn’t seek them out as much as we did this year.

“This is the first comprehensive survey that we’ve done. ... We’ve been working on it since 2004, but this year we really tried to go all out and do the most we could. We may have gotten more if the weather hadn’t been so bad.”

In order to do a better job of counting, Sproles said the nonprofit — which provides assistance to low-to-moderate income families and individuals in the area — worked with various agencies to reach more people.

“We worked with community partners,” Sproles said. “Partners like social services, police departments, jails, family preservation services and even hotels.”

Unlike in urban areas, Sproles said most of the homeless population of Southwest Virginia does not live on the streets. Instead, they live at campgrounds, or in hotels, or even on a friend or relatives couch.

“Homelessness is going to look a lot different here than it does in more urban areas,” Sproles said. “You’re not going to really see people on the street here like you would there.

“It is a bigger problem than people realize in this area. In this region, we have a lot of people who double up, or couch surf, and we can’t count those even though they would qualify. So it’s a problem with the definition of homelessness from (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development).”

Those who completed the survey identified everything from unemployment and underemployment to poor health and prior criminal offenses as reasons for their homelessness.

Now that the survey has been completed and the numbers compiled, Sproles said the data will be turned over to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. Those figures will be used to determine how much money DHCD is allocated from HUD for homeless programs.

“This is the first step in identifying how big the problem is,” Sproles said. “Now, we have to figure out what the causes of the problem are. ... Hopefully this will lead to more dollars, because we have to prove the need before the dollars will come. We’ve got the need, now we’ve got to identify solutions.”

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