by Emily Carrigan–
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in January 2015, 564,708 people were homeless on a given night in the United States.
Men are thought to experience homelessness due to long-term unemployment as a result of the unstable economy, because they are facing foreclosure or eviction or because they are awaiting approval for government homeless-intervention programs.
This is true of homelessness in the New River Valley, though Morris Fleischer, chairman of publicity and church recruitment for To Our House, says homelessness in rural areas looks different than it does in more urban areas.
“There are those stereotypical sights of people sleeping in storefronts or maybe somebody pushing a shopping cart with all their earthly belongings, well our homeless don’t look like that here,” Fleischer said. “Men are living out in tents out in the woods on the Appalachian Trail … [and] the Giles County Sheriff Department found a gentleman that was living in a storm culvert under rout 100 just south of Pearisburg.”
The death of a well-known and highly visible homeless man in the Blacksburg community in 2008 led a group of concerned citizens to discuss what they were doing about the issue of homelessness locally.
“His name was Teddy Owen Henderson…he died in October about eight years ago and his death really led us to consider what in the world are we doing for homeless men in the Valley?” Fleischer said.
This led to the creation of To Our House, a moniker that honors Henderson by using the same initials as his name. The non-profit offers shelter, meals, advocacy and assistance to homeless men in the New River Valley.
To Our House’s first season was just 11 weeks and a several of the guests were trades people who were unable to find work after the economy crashed in 2008.
“Obviously people kind of default to mental illness or say that they must be mentally unstable because they’re unable to keep a roof over their head, and we do know that mental illness is a real problem and a real issue and something that is in desperate need of addressing … however, that is a stereotype because some of the men are just unemployed,” Fleischer said.
Through To Our House, men in need of shelter are able to go to the intake center at the New River Community Action offices during their winter season where they are provided with safe transportation to a shelter for the night.
In 2008, a new Montgomery County courthouse was being constructed across the street from these offices. To Our House was able to connect one of their homeless guests to a stable job helping with this construction to get him back on his feet.
“He became the foreman for all the sheet rock that was put up in the new Montgomery County courthouse,” Fleischer said. “Sometimes it’s just giving them that stability, that base, where they can say, ‘OK, that’s taken care of so now I can go apply for this job or work to get transportation so I can go to work here or there or beyond that.'”
The program has since grown, with the most recent season occurring over 21 weeks from October and March. Fleischer estimated that by the end of each season, To Our House is able to connect about half the men who come through the program with a job or permanent housing, and sometimes both.
To Our House is considered part of the New River Community Action, a charity organization whose mission is to “reduce poverty, revitalize low-income communities and empower low-income individuals and families to become fully self-sufficient,” their Facebook page says.