News & Features » News and Features

Counting Sheep



It's just after 6 in the morning and Sheila Crossen-Powell stands in the meat department, gently grilling a Wal-Mart employee. Burgers aren't what she's after. Crossen-Powell is hunting the homeless.

The meat aisle of a Hanover County Wal-Mart -- really anywhere in the county — may sound like an unlikely place to find homeless people, but as assistant director of Hanover County Social Services, Crossen-Powell wants a clearer picture of how many residents are without homes. She's heard from other store employees that a woman regularly hovers just outside the building and occasionally wanders into the 24-hour facility.

"We have a very, very low poverty rate," says Crossen-Powell, a stately woman with a Southern lilt and a crown of blond curls. "Unemployment is less than 3 percent [in Hanover]. It's very difficult for people to even conceive of the fact that people in the county have the need" for homeless services.

The early-morning adventure is part of the twice-yearly Point-in-Time Count, a regional census of the homeless. This is the 10th year that Homeward, a Richmond-based homeless-services agency, has coordinated the event.

For the first several years of the count, Hanover officials reported that there were no homeless people in the county, Homeward's communications director Ana Edwards says. About two years ago, however, people started arriving in Hanover's Social Services office, identifying themselves as homeless and asking for help.

"Then someone dropped the bomb on us," Crossen-Powell says. Hanover Social Services learned that school buses were stopping every morning to pick up children from a group of motels off U.S. Route 1.

The homeless epidemic is still primarily viewed as a city problem. But since Homeward launched in 1998 as a gatekeeper agency for the multitude of homeless shelters and agencies in Richmond, new data has emerged suggesting that the problem stretches into the suburban counties. Recent information from the Homeward Community Information System, the group's data bank of basic demographic information taken from people when they check into shelters, indicates that up to 60 percent of the people coming into the system list as their last place of residence a ZIP code outside the city.

The data harmonizes with the trend at Homeward and other organizations that supply services to homeless — most of which are located within city limits — to rethink how to supply services and help those without the means for shelter.

"We're still trying to get a handle on the scope of the situation," Crossen-Powell says. In the last two years Hanover Social Services has added homeless services to its strategic plan and amped up participation in the Point-in-Time Count.

Crossen-Powell is still unsure why the numbers jumped two years ago; she wonders, for instance, whether it's become more socially acceptable to ask for help. She worries that several of those seeking help are elderly, a foreboding phenomenon for a steadily graying county.

"Working with Hanover has helped us pinpoint the fact that homelessness looks different in the county," Homeward's Edwards says.

Still, the county numbers are relatively small compared with those for the city. Homeward identified 1,072 people in its regional count. Using statistical models, Homeward estimates that that number translates to 4,284-6,426 homeless people in the region. Only three of those surveyed in the count were found in Hanover, but that number doesn't include the families in motels. They don't fit the definition of homelessness used by the federal Housing and Urban Development agency, which partly funds Homeward and requires the annual count.

The transient nature of the population and the multitude of causes of homelessness make the big picture difficult to get a fix on, but Homeward has been working to cull richer data so it can better marshal programs and resources.

Last summer, Homeward created a research director position and hired Margot Ackermann to ramp up the data collection and analysis. This year she's rolling out a new questionnaire aimed at revealing more biographical information about health, family, military and criminal histories. She has a hunch, for example, that the veteran population is underrepresented. Homeward wants to identify patterns in the population to help shape Richmond's housing programs.

"People have gotten better at offering more specialized solutions," Ackermann says. Single men who need to recover from an addiction now have The Healing Place in Richmond. A favorite of Ackermann's is an organization in Florida called Cabins in the Woods, which, as the name suggests, provides cabins and solitude for veterans. Finding beds for former felons or couples with children is much more difficult.

Homelessness in the city presents a much more familiar scene. On the day of the count, Homeward also hosts a fair at St. Paul's Episcopal weekly lunch downtown to draw in as many people as possible. Representatives distribute toiletries and information, and provide the always-popular free haircuts.

Calvin White, 48, gets in line for a haircut, joking with the other men in line and loosening the braids he's ready to shave off.

He's glad Homeward's doing the count, he says, but cautions "it's hard to count, though, because a lot of people are hard to find."

It's a lesson Crossen-Powell and Edwards are well aware of. After their trip to Wal-Mart, they visit the Waffle House, McDonald's and a truck stop, all yielding similar results: anecdotes about specific regulars, but no warm bodies.

Driving down Route 1, Crossen-Powell points out a cluster of motels with romantic names — the Palm Leaf, the Apple Garden Inn, the Cadillac.

"They really have become transitional housing situations," she says when they pass the Palm Leaf Motel, a classic 1950s-looking red-brick motor lodge. "And sometimes not transitional at all."

Fifteen minutes later, a 10-year-old boy bursts out of a room and hops on a yellow school bus. Watching from the door of the motel room, his mother, who declines to give her name, says she and her boyfriend both work, but can't find a place they can afford since moving to the area six months ago. She says many of the other tenants at the motel are in similar situations and have children riding the same school bus.

Living month-to-month in a motel is hardly the same situation as living night-to-night on the street or in shelters, but the U.S. Department of Education has a much broader definition of homelessness than the Housing and Urban Development does.

Rosemarie Stocky, director of instructional support services for Hanover schools, says during the last school year 43 students were considered homeless, either living in motels or "doubled-up," the term for two households sharing a living space meant for one family.

"We don't want to label them except to help," she says, but "if a child is living in a hotel, it's an automatic that we're going to send a social worker to help out."

The national literature on homelessness recognizes the pattern of families living in motels, but until Hanover and Homeward started working more closely, it wasn't something Homeward had seen firsthand.

"We need to know who's homeless, from the stereotypical experience of someone standing on the street to the subtler situations," Edwards says, "like people living in the motel, invisible to most people." S

  • Click here for more News and Features
  • Add a comment