Recently our members volunteered at a local church for its program to shelter homeless men during the winter season. This program is funded by several NGOs on a local and federal level in partnership with local churches. It keeps homeless men from being exposed to the elements. Volunteers assemble some cots, make a meal, and supervise the men for a night til the following morning where they are dropped off at the New River Community Action building in downtown Christiansburg.
These men ranged in age from young to old, 20-somethings to near-retirement, looking like any other average guy in the area; blue collar-looking, but nothing to indicate homelessness other than maybe carrying large backpacks containing all their possessions. Some men were local, some were from the other side of the country, some are long time transplants from other corners of the state and the east coast. They each had a unique story as to how they found themselves there with us on these cots. But there was some universal things all these men had in common despite their particularities.
Drug addiction, legal and financial problems, mental and physical health problems, and a general lack of access to resources needed to break them out of this extreme cycle of poverty where each problem continuously feeds into the other. They were grateful to the organizations and their services, but they regularly commented there wasn’t enough resources available to really get them out of homelessness. Jobs and job training are inadequate, mental and physical health services are inadequate.
One man in particular, who we will call R, spoke on his history of coming to the area decades ago to be with his family. He has worked for Virginia Tech for decades in various departments, had a home, but a combination of dwindling hours, getting left behind in the digital age, and Virginia Tech actually buying his home and evicting him, left him with nowhere to go and depressed. The only option he saw was hospitalization. His economic condition triggered a drug relapse, most of his family has passed on, he feels alone and isolated with no support network to turn to. He ended up at the Rescue Mission in Roanoke prior to arriving back in Montgomery County with us.
R described the normal routine and psychological effects he deals with while homeless, free food at this church on this day, free clothes at this other church on another day. He can’t talk openly about his possessions or plans for fear of being overheard by others who might jump and rob him. He has to be careful with his interactions with staff – some of whom are quick to call the cops. He has to forget any rights to privacy. Dealing with criminalization and having a record the rest of their life, resulting in discrimination from potential employers and landlords. Little wonder many people in this situation only think about living one day at a time. Who can make long term plans or realize them when you have a hundred everyday problems to solve just to ensure your safety? This type of life epitomizes the concept of precarity.
R hopes that he will qualify for retirement and disability soon so he can afford to move into Warm Hearth Village where he can have some sort of support he otherwise lacks, but he keeps having to jump through hoops and red tape to maybe get that financial assistance he desperately needs, no guarantees though.
The problems R face are problems we and others in our lives have all faced and continue to face, the only difference between him and us is chance. Many of us are only a few steps away from being out of a job or out on the streets. Even if we can manage to keep a roof over our heads and stay employed that says nothing about the mental and physical tolls taken as we work jobs that regularly feature a lack of hours, a lack of pay, a lack of affordable healthcare, and general alienation. Many of us are already priced out of Blacksburg, yet many also have college degrees and are stuck as baristas in Starbucks or working in the deli at Kroger.
We can address these problems, but as R and others can attest to, the charity of churches and NGOs are not cutting it. They only scratch the surface as to what people need to live decently. In order to change this workers MUST get organized and form networks of mutual aid as well as a collective capacity to fight for a larger piece of the pie that has been hoarded by big business and their allies.