Weather Brings Challenges to Homeless Virginia Residents | North Carolina News

By IAN MUNRO, Daily News-Record

HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP) — The voices of men and women cut through the frigid morning air as the northwest side of Harrisonburg was still shrouded in darkness Monday morning.

Light crept across the parking lot of the grocery store-turned-homeless shelter as the sun set over the mountains. Bundles of clothes and diapers clung to people as they stood in and around the nearby bus shelter on Chicago Avenue.

Others hung behind, their backs against the building, smoking outside the market where activity was dwindling. They were getting used to the cold like their homeless comrades in the valley waiting for the bus.

The Open Doors Shelter, which operates out of the former Red Front supermarket, provides a place for people who have nowhere to go for a meal and a warm place to sleep at night. But when it closes each morning, customers are alone until it reopens at 6:30 p.m.

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During times when the mercury is just above 32 degrees during the day, it can be difficult for them to stay warm and feed themselves.

It was 7 a.m. on Monday, and the doors behind Open Doors guests slammed shut as Massachusetts native John Morris explained why he had first come to Harrisonburg and how he had ended up homeless almost a year ago.

He looked forward to 9 a.m., when he and a few others could come in and out of the cold to help clean up the shelter.

“We all go through things,” Morris said.

Brothers Adam and Josh Dawson were also standing outside the shelter on Monday morning. Both said they were doing their best to get back on their feet. Adam is a painter by trade and works, while Josh recently lost his birth certificate and other papers. He is waiting for replacements to try to land a job at the Family Dollar a hundred yards from the shelter.

“It sucks all around,” Adam Dawson said. “The staff can’t help it. They must be home. They have children and wives and stuff like that. They can’t stay here 24/7.

He also said that sometimes some homeless residents can be harsh on staff, but he has never seen staff be harsh on residents.

Like Morris, Jessica Poirier hails from Massachusetts. She had a stroke in September 2020 while living and working in High Point, North Carolina. After that, she became homeless as she had difficulty working and no family to support her.

Poirier came to Harrisonburg while traveling with her then-boyfriend, but they have since broken up, leaving her stranded in the city. His goal for this year is to return to High Point, where the cost of living is lower.

She said she had tried to find accommodation in Harrisonburg but could not afford it.

“Even the trailers here are expensive,” she said in the early afternoon outside the shelter. “I’m not paying $700 a month for a (single width) trailer.”

On cold days like Monday, Poirier said she would generally try to stay near open doors, while on warmer days she might head to the nearby park.

Sometimes Open Doors will be open during the day on very cold days while Our Community Place, another refuge, extends its opening hours in winter to 7:30 a.m. – just after Open Doors closes – at 2:00 p.m. generally.

“We’ve worked for several years to make sure people aren’t being left behind, so to speak, and literally,” said Sam Nickels, director of OCP.

When the temperature is below 32 degrees, OCP is open when Open Doors is closed, he said.

“The challenge is really about people who have had behavioral issues in this shelter and can’t sleep there at night,” he said.

Many homeless residents the Daily News-Record spoke to on Monday at Open Doors while it was closed said they sometimes avoided OCP because of the “drama”.

Mental issues among homeless people contribute to increased tension and lack of sleep, further exacerbating tense situations at places like Open Doors and OCP, Nickels said.

Other places that provide shelter or support for homeless residents during the day include the Massanutten Regional Library, which anyone can still enter when it’s open, and churches like Asbury United Methodist, which opens between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and, like Open Doors, is often open on snow days, according to Nickels.

Joel Ballew, director of Open Doors, could not be reached by email on Monday afternoon.

Justin Simpson, a 36-year-old homeless man, said the hardest week to stay warm was around Christmas, when many places you can rely on at other times, such as the library, are closed.

Simpson is grateful to all the groups that come together to support the homeless during the winter months.

“It wasn’t as easy (to stay warm) before,” he said as others made their way inside the shelter on Monday evening.

The Harrisonburg City Council has prioritized building a year-round homeless shelter, but whether it will be open 24/7 remains to be seen. City spokesman Michael Parks said the city is now focused on securing a site for the shelter, and the city is not part of discussions about its operations at this time.

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