In Williamsburg, homelessness shows its face in makeshift tents along railroad tracks, in discarded piles of clothing and at emergency winter homeless shelters.
Across the country in Boise, Idaho, the question about whether people who are homeless can be arrested for sleeping in public has come to the forefront. On April 1, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals released an opinion saying localities in the West may not be able to criminalize sleeping in public if there is no access to “adequate” temporary shelter.
While the ruling does not apply to Virginia — because the 9th Circuit covers several western states — some local leaders fighting homelessness hope the Boise case will bring attention to a lack of temporary housing in Greater Williamsburg.
James City County and the city of Williamsburg do not have ordinances like Boise outlawing vagrancy, the localities’ respective attorneys said.
Still, Williamsburg Christian Church Pastor Fred Liggin said there is a lack of “adequate” overnight shelters in Greater Williamsburg.
“Can the everyday person living through displacement with no money or case management services find a place to sleep at night? No,” Liggin said of the Williamsburg area. Liggin also founded 3e Restoration, a faith-based nonprofit fighting systemic poverty and homelessness.
Community of Faith Mission, another faith-based nonprofit, operates a 16-week nighttime emergency winter shelter for up to 25 people per night. Williamsburg House of Mercy also operates the Harbor Day Shelter in partnership with Greater Williamsburg Outreach Mission.
There are also some nonprofits working to transition people out of homelessness, including 3e Restoration.
There are no overnight homeless shelters in Greater Williamsburg that operate year-round and are open to all.
The 2018 Point-in-Time Count identified 20 people as homeless in Williamsburg, 71 in James City County and five in York County on Jan. 23 and 24, 2018. Other methods of counting indicate the number of people living without a home could be much higher.
Churches make up a large part of the support system for the homeless in Williamsburg, but can they let people stay in their buildings overnight?
Not a whim — there’s an administrative process.
State building code restricts the use of some buildings, but the use can be temporarily changed by getting a temporary change of use permit, said Lee Ann Hartmann, the city’s spokeswoman.
This code is also applicable to James City County, said Tom Coghill, director of building safety and permits for the county.
Churches that want to provide shelter need to apply for the permit, then have public safety officials inspect smoke detectors, ventilation, plumbing, electrical and more at the church.
The city waives the permit fee and inspects all the churches within city limits that are part of Community of Faith Mission’s winter shelter system, Hartmann added.
Williamsburg and James City County do not have vagrancy laws like Boise, but have some other laws that may be applicable.
For example, any individual trespassing on, defacing or stealing public property is subject to lawful punishment, according to city code. Additionally, the city code states that individuals taking part in disorderly conduct, such as public intoxication, is violating the law.
James City County Police spokeswoman Stephanie Williams said the county does not have ordinances prohibiting loitering or vagrancy. Officers will share information about available resources when they come across a homeless person or a panhandler.
Williamsburg Police spokesman Officer John Heilman said local police also focus on education about resources when it comes to complaints about a homeless person or panhandler.
What about Hampton and Newport News?
In Hampton and Newport News, there are no city ordinances prohibiting people who are homeless from sleeping in public, local law enforcement agencies said.
Police officers become involved if someone is trespassing certain locations or blocking the sidewalk, said Reggie Williams, spokesman for the Hampton Police Department.
Matthew Stearn, executive director of the Hampton Roads Ecumenical Lodgings and Provisions has heard of the ruling in Boise and thinks it’s a “fantastic rule” he completely agrees with.
“Hampton is doing a great job of just helping people moving along rather than charging them for being homeless,” Stearn said.
HELP runs a day support services center, at 329 Buckroe Ave. with a full-time case manager to help direct those looking for apartments and employment.
In Newport News, police officers attempt to assist people in finding shelter, said Kelly King, police spokeswoman, in an email.
The city’s day services center, Four Oaks, has employment agencies and health care professionals on site and LINK of Hampton Roads, also works with the city to provide housing for those who are homeless.