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Last year Roanoke criminalized sleeping on sidewalks. Here’s what’s happened since

Church Ave. in downtown Roanoke, Va.
Dave Seidel/ Radio IQ
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Church Ave. in downtown Roanoke, Va.

Since 2020 Roanoke has seen an increase in the number of people sleeping on sidewalks and downtown areas. Last December, the city council voted to make sleeping on sidewalks a criminal offense. Other communities across southwest Virginia, including Bristol and Pulaski, have enacted similar policies in the past few months.

A spokesperson for the Roanoke Police Department said officers have not yet issued a formal citation. If they do encounter someone who is homeless, police reach out to the city’s Homeless Assistance Team, who try to move people into shelters, find food, and get housing vouchers.

Matt Crookshank, who leads the team and also coordinates Roanoke’s response to homelessness, says they’ve helped 120 people find housing this year.

“This calendar year we’ve housed more people directly off the streets than we housed all of last calendar year over 12 months,” Crookshank said.

He said the trend in Roanoke in the previous decade had been a decrease in the number of people who are homeless, but the number of people sleeping outside in Roanoke doubled in 2020, and the numbers have continued to climb.

This is partly because not everyone is comfortable living in a shelter, and because the need exceeds the housing that’s available— even when his team can get someone a housing voucher, there often aren’t affordable places for them to live.

“Yes, those programs do amazing work. And are helpful,” said Danny Clawson, executive director of the Virginia Harm Reduction Coalition. They work directly with many who are homeless in Roanoke.

“However, there’s not enough staff and there is not enough housing to meet the need.” Clawson organizes a mobile health clinic that travels throughout the city, including at motels where sometime people live temporarily, when they can collect enough cash. “About 65 percent of our participants are unhoused. They live kind of night to night either bouncing around on couches. They often stay at hotels. But a lot of our participants can’t even do that every night. It’s actually quite expensive to live in a hotel,”

Clawson and others point to a lack of affordable housing in Roanoke as one of the biggest barriers. Also, a need for more people to access mental health care, and treatment for substance abuse treatments.

Since the ordinance went into effect this January, Clawson has seen a number of people who had been sleeping downtown moving camp to unlit areas in more suburban areas. “The sleeping in downtown Roanoke wasn’t about comfort, so much as it was about safety. When I think about the ordinance, that’s the thing that I think about the most, is that the reason people were sleeping down there is because it’s well lit.”

Roanoke’s two shelters, the Rescue Mission, and the Roanoke Area Ministries (RAM) both say they’ve seen an increase in people asking for help in 2022.

Jamie Clark is with the nonprofit, Downtown Roanoke Incorporated, which supported the ordinance.

“But we do have a ton of services that are available for people, so I think finding a way to connect people in need when they need it with the services they need will be impactful.”

Their organization is launching an ambassador program this month. Among the duties of the new ambassadors will be outreach with people who are homeless to connect them with resources.

Crookshank said he hopes that program will be able to collaborate with the city’s Homeless Assistance Team, which just added two additional positions this summer.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.