Down a gravel road in the woods of a local county one recent evening, Longwood seniors Victoria Perry and Taylor Hughes interviewed a woman who lives in a shed that lacks heat, water and electricity.
The woman, a domestic violence survivor in her 40s, uses a propane heater to keep warm, buys water at Walmart and dreams of building a house on the property, which she owns. Her life had crumbled just like dominos, and she can’t stand back up on her feet,” said Hughes, “but she’s doing the best she can in the situation.”
Hughes and Perry were among four members of Longwood’s Sociology Club who searched for people in similar situations when they visited gas stations, fast-food restaurants, laundromats and parks in six nearby counties on an evening in late January. Along with fellow seniors Taylor Bryant and Lacy Hodges, they were volunteers in an annual homeless census coordinated by STEPS Inc., the regional community action agency.
STEPS partnered for the first time with outside organizations in the “Point In Time Count,” or PIT Count, which is part of a statewide effort to provide a “snapshot” of each region’s homeless population. Data from the count is a factor used in determining grant allocations for programs related to homelessness.
“It was sad but also eye-opening to see that where these people live is so different from where I live,” said Bryant, a sociology major from Poquoson. “ We went behind buildings and to dumpsters.”
Each of the Longwood students served on a team of volunteers that was sent to locate homeless individuals and families in two area counties.
“A lot of people who need help don’t want to be found, so the homeless population is often overlooked anyway, especially in rural areas like this where they’re harder to count than in urban areas,” said Hughes, a sociology major from Virginia Beach.
The volunteers, who canvassed from 6 p.m. to midnight, had been provided information ahead of time by local law enforcement personnel as to where homeless persons might be found. Hodges, who spent part of her night riding with a deputy sheriff, interviewed a man living in an abandoned trailer, and Bryant interviewed a homeless person living at a motel.
The Sociology Club’s involvement was prompted by Perry’s interest in homelessness. Perry, the club’s president, first heard about the count during her internship last semester in STEPS’ housing program, where Bryant and Hughes are doing internships this semester. The agency seeks to prevent homelessness and responds to the problem by providing emergency shelter and rapidly rehousing residents of shelters.
“We have more homeless people in this area than you might think,” said Perry, a sociology major from Warrenton.
An annual homeless count is required for agencies that receive Virginia Homeless Solutions funding from the Department of Housing and Community Development.
“With last year’s grant, it turns out we needed more shelter money than we thought we would. STEPS has sheltered a lot of homeless people this year,” said Amy Beatson, STEPS’ director of planning and resource development.