Roanoke has long spent money helping people experiencing homelessness secure permanent housing.
But in recent years, the city has also directed more funds to less typical agencies now tasked with cracking down on an influx of people living outdoors.
From parks to parking garages, the city has approved armed security, encampment clearings and mental health training for staff previously unaccustomed to dealing with homelessness.
Overall, homelessness has declined in the Roanoke Valley over the last decade, according to censuses conducted by the Blue Ridge Interagency Council on Homelessness. But the number of people living outside of traditional shelters has soared since the pandemic.
Such visibility led Roanoke City Council in December 2021 to ban people from sleeping or camping on downtown sidewalks.
“One of the byproducts of that was that the unsheltered population moved to the closest place, which was the elevator vestibules, which was the parking garage stairwell, so we saw a huge uptick in the unsheltered population in our garages,” said Brian Mann, who oversees PARK Roanoke, the city’s official downtown parking enterprise.
At one point, Mann estimated, 50 to 60 people were living overnight across the city’s seven parking garages. He heard frequent complaints from customers.
“I felt like I had to take a preemptive position on it, which was to go out and get security because, you know, we needed to monitor this situation until a) the police force was back up to a position where they could they could do it or, you know, b) the unsheltered population was much lower,” Mann said.
One armed security officer now patrols the garages and lots in a vehicle from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m., each day of the week. To pay for the annual $186,000 contract, PARK Roanoke will raise monthly parking fees by $5 for the general public and $10 for downtown residents.
(Though Council approves the agency’s budget, as a city enterprise it is not funded by tax dollars but through parking fees.)
Mann said PARK Roanoke may bolster its security even further, and would have to eat the costs by deferring maintenance. He said staff have tried to be compassionate to those experiencing homelessness.
“We didn't come in there with a billy club and start banging people's heads,” Mann said. “We did it in a way that allowed us to communicate, so, ‘Hey, I understand what you’re going through, but you can’t be here. Here's a couple places where you can get help. And we've reduced it almost down to nothing.”
The city’s parks and greenways have also seen an uptick in people staying overnight.
While staff have not noticed a significant increase since the sidewalk ordinance, they have encountered more people living outdoors since the pandemic, according to city officials.
“It’s a daily thing for us now,” Michael Clark, director of the parks and recreation department, said. “It's become a really big part of our job. We encounter some unhoused folks in our restroom facilities, we encounter them in wooded areas of parks, sometimes out in the open.”
The city’s proposed budget for next fiscal year, which begins in July, includes $25,000 for a dedicated “Homeless Encampment Cleanup” fund, which will help “remove bio-hazards, needles, and solid waste refuse left by camp occupants in city parks, greenways, and other properties.”
Recently, the department has offered mental health training to contractors tasked with clearing encampments on trauma, self care and dealing with people in crisis. One contractor told The Rambler last month that he would not take part in a camp clearing again because of the emotional toll.
“All landscape crews attended Mental Health First Aid Certification to assist with stress and anxiety associated with dealing with homeless population throughout the park system,” states a department report from last spring, obtained in a public records request.
Clark recalls taking part himself in clearing a camp deep in the woods of Mill Mountain. He said one person fashioned “a full-on log cabin” while another tent had a wood stove and cot inside.
“We had to take all that stuff down and take it out,” he said. “It was gut-wrenching. I mean, it really took its toll on me personally, and that was just one instance.”
Internal staff reports describe constant issues because of people living in the parks, from a “concession stand that was vandalized by homeless” to trash and debris.
“Issues with the homeless population continue,” a report from last spring said. “These issues include making camps in the parks; breaking into and sleeping in facilities; leaving drug paraphernalia in the parks; and using the bathroom in inappropriate places. The power has been cut at several parks in an attempt to alter these behaviors.”
City Manager Bob Cowell said the city has a two-pronged approach to homelessness: To get people the services they need, including housing, and then to “remove where folks are not lawfully able to actually live.”
The city’s Homeless Assistance Team (HAT) is working in overdrive. The team has “actually been able to place more folks that are sleeping outside in housing than they've been able to probably anytime in their past,” Cowell said.
Still, issues remain with people sleeping outdoors, particularly at Fallon Park, Smith Park, Lick Run Greenway and River’s Edge Park near Roanoke Memorial Hospital, according to Clark.
When City Council debated whether to ban camping on downtown sidewalks, proponents noted parks and greenways carry a similar ban. Violation is a Class 4 misdemeanor, a $250 fine.
Yet Clark also noted people could be charged with trespassing for staying in parks after hours, a Class 1 misdemeanor that can result in jail time.
“So what are you charged with? Are you charged with trespassing or are you charged with violating the park hours?” he said. “It does make the enforcement side of it a little tricky, when there's not something very explicit in city code on how to handle it.”
Clark did not have specific data, but said formal citations from police have been minimal.
Vice Mayor Joe Cobb said he occasionally hears concerns from residents about “encampments that are cropping up in different places, which I totally expected when we did the ban downtown.” (Cobb voted against that ordinance.)
He said he was “glad that the encampment issue by the airport has been resolved to the extent that it can be.” The city recently moved to seize that property, from a defunct company, so it can better prevent people from setting up tents there.
Still, Cobb said he would also “love to see our city pilot or test a tiny home model,” noting that The Least of These Ministries, an outreach group, is among advocates who have long been calling for a permanent, secure place where people can stay outside of a traditional shelter.
“The thing we haven’t fully figured out is … for people who simply don't want to be housed or sheltered, that's the conundrum,” Cobb said. “And then where are safe places that they can do that?”
Because of the increase in people living outdoors, Clark said the city has begun to take a more comprehensive approach to homelessness, similar to Roanoke's Star City Safe initiative aimed at keeping youth away from trouble. Those efforts are still in their infancy.
“It’s kind of a multi-department approach to this, so it doesn't just fall on public works or fall on Parks and Rec or police or whatever,” Clark said, “because it really is a citywide issue.”
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