More than 40 people gathered outside the City Municipal Building before Martinsville City Council’s Sept. 27 meeting to advocate for a homeless shelter in Martinsville.
Carrying signs that read “Bless our people,” “Love thy neighbor,” “We need a shelter,” and “Help the homeless,” representatives from the rally addressed council members.
Keith Owens, executive director of the Peer Recovery Connection which organized the rally, was among those to speak at the meeting.
“As you leave here tonight, it’s cold, and the warming center is not going to open until November. There are people laying on park benches, they’re in gazebos, they’re on the Dick and Willie Trail in tent encampments and it’s a growing problem,” Owens said. “We become, as a peer center, that’s become a problem. We have to dedicate someone who goes through housing because there are no resources really to give to these people.”
Owens said that he and others are trying to “remain the squeaky wheel,” and keep the issue of a homeless shelter at the forefront of city council’s mind.
Michael Harrison, pastor of The Community Fellowship, said the homeless shelter would need to be a “wrap around shelter,” meaning that residents stay long-term, are assigned a case worker and provided with a plan and services to get them back on their feet.
“What does that shelter look like? Somewhere between 30 and 32 beds. It’s a wrap-around shelter. It’s not just a bed, hot meal and a cot for a night. This is a way to get people off the street and to get them help,” he said.
He also listed some of the requirements for the location, which is currently being negotiated with different parties. He said it needs to be situated along the bus route, within walking distance of Uptown, and accessible.
Harrison asked that city officials look into various forms of funding for the shelter, including the use of ARPA funding, opioid compensation money, and grants from the Harvest Foundation.
Owens said once built, the cost to operate the shelter would be about $250,000 per year.
“We just have a need for a shelter, and I know it all revolves around location and building costs or rehab of buildings. I think some other players in our community have shown vested interest, and it’s all contingent on funding from the city, funding from the county,” Owens said.
Both he and Harrison noted the increase prevalence of homelessness in the community and the cost that it brings to the area.
According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the estimated cost “is $47 to $60 a day for people who are unhoused and on the street,” Owens said. “And these costs are incurred through public servants – the rescue squad, police departments – and the time whenever someone is arrested and what it costs to house those people.”
He noted those costs can soar due to hospital visits and vandalism.
Owens also discussed the increase in homelessness his organization has witnessed and how it applies to its mission.
“If no one has a stable place to lay their head, they’re not going to find recovery, and we have just become inundated with homelessness and people seeking housing and affordable housing, any housing at all,” he said.
“We are watching tent communities, more and more tent communities, come up in our community. By the way, our phone calls for homelessness have gone up 300 percent in 2022,” Harrison added.
Owens said a shelter would be a step towards better days for the city and county.
“We’re just wanting to be those people, those citizens of the community, because I’m one of those citizens that believe there are better days are ahead. Our better days aren’t behind us just because we’ve lost all the industry. As a community, our better days are to come,” Owens said. “I’m here, I’m a lifer I call it, so I’ll be here. We just need to help those people that are most vulnerable and need life, hope, and passion, love.”
Harrison asked council and other citizens to step up to help the homeless population in the area.
“We live in an incredible place. We are blessed. And if I can, let me remind us, we are blessed. We are so blessed. Let’s find some people who need some help and let’s go help them. We need funds to do that,” he said.
Mayor Kathy Lawson and Vice Mayor Jennifer Bowles noted the city’s collaboration with United Way to help those facing eviction.
Chad Martin, council member, said no one knows how homelessness is until they walk in someone else’s shoes. He referenced a short period of time during college in which he slept in his car and at friends’ houses. He said while this was a short period of time, it was eye opening.
Martin encouraged the county and its school system, as well as the city school system, council, and community organizations to engage in a “poverty day or weekend.”
“I would ask, on a Saturday, that we be dropped off at the library, maybe only given $5 with your telephone, and say, ‘Figure it out,’” he said.
He added that being homeless makes it difficult to reach out.
“Being homeless is a dehumanizing experience. It’s hard to look people face to face. It’s hard to want to reach out. It takes a lot of courage to actually ask for help,” Martin said.
Tammy Pearson, council member, called for the council to take the lead in helping Owens and Harrison bring their plans for a shelter to fruition.
“As many of our citizens have said, including here tonight, instead of talking, let’s take action,” she said. “And so, I would like to ask that our city takes a lead in working with Pastor Harrison and others, and let’s pull some groups together, like the city and Henry County and pull together others such as Harvest, United Way, Grace Network, and others to sit down at the table and come up with actionable plans.”
In other matters, the council:
* Approved the amended minutes from the Aug. 9 and Aug 23 meetings.
* Heard an overview of the Sept. 26 West End Neighborhood meeting.
* Opened up the floor to public comments on the possible demolition of Paradise Inn on West Fayette Street.
* Acknowledged the 20the anniversary of the Harvest Foundation.
* Approved the consent agenda.