Waynesboro Area Refuge Ministry (WARM) and its partner organizations are reaching new milestones in a fight to end homelessness.

And this week they are participating in Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week as part of a nationwide effort.

WARM works in collaboration with over 20 organizations as part of a regional homeless response team that have been working to meet state and federal benchmarks to tackle a common goal: help individuals come out of homelessness, and eliminate homelessness in the cities of Waynesboro and Stauntonm and Augusta County.

“Our goal as a group is housing ends homelessness,” said Debra Freeman-Belle, executive director of WARM.

Recently, WARM and its partners in the regional homeless response team have been meeting state and local benchmarks that will increase funding for their programs for the first time.

“Our community has had a homeless response system for many, many years, but historically when it had different agencies and leadership, we didn’t meet benchmarks,” Freeman-Belle explained.

Last year, when WARM and Valley Community Services Board became leading agencies in the region’s homeless response system, the organizations’ leadership began looking at benchmarks required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the state, and how they could work together to meet these benchmarks that, so far, had not been met by the community.

“In order to get the funds needed for your area, you have to show that you are meeting the benchmarks, and that you have an adequate response system, and in order to have an adequate response system, it takes funding,” Freeman-Belle explained.

Since working collaboratively with the region’s homeless response system, however, benchmarks have been met, and funding for the various programs designed to combat and eliminate homelessness has been increasing.

“The only thing that matters is our collective community. If WARM isn’t successful, if Valley Mission isn’t successful, if New Directions isn’t successful, then it impacts all of us. It takes all of us to meet those benchmarks,” said Freeman-Belle.

WARM is operating its cold weather shelters for their ninth year. Churches of all denominations within the cities of Waynesboro and Staunton, and Augusta County may offer their buildings to serve as a shelter for individuals experiencing homelessness. Individuals are provided a bed, food, warmth and support.

This year is WARM’s longest operation of cold weather shelters, extending from Nov. 25 through April 12, 2020. In the first year operating cold weather shelters, WARM was only able to provide them for six weeks, so every extension of availability is a welcome improvement.

“We’re excited we’ve been able to add a few weeks this year and to expand our season. I hope for the future to run from Veterans Day to April, so we’re working on the resources for that,” said Freeman-Belle.

Seventeen churches throughout Augusta County act as shelter sites for 20 weeks through this winter, with two overflow church sites. Freeman-Belle estimates that at least 20 other church congregations lend support to the shelter sites through volunteer work. This year, Freeman-Belle worked to bring more structure to the cold weather shelter program so that not only could currently homeless individuals find help, but also a solution that works toward helping them out of homelessness.

“Before last year, it was a really good Christian community response type of approach, where we provided people with a bed and a meal. But there wasn’t a foundation of services. It wasn’t housing-focused. Not only how can we provide you a bed and three meals, but how can we help you get the resources or navigate the system to help you get past homelessness? Last year, we added a lot of structure and service focus, and housing focus and staff for the first time to be able to make sure that program is contributing toward people moving out of homelessness,” she said.

Freeman-Belle said that WARM serves over 200 individuals locally through programs.

“As a region for our homeless response system, we serve over 700 people experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness each year,” she said.

Of these numbers, Freeman-Belle said that over 70% of individuals served during the winter are homeless veterans, disabled adults and senior citizens.

In Waynesboro alone, 42% of residents live at the poverty line, in poverty, or struggle to make ends meet, according to United Way’s latest report, said Freeman-Belle.

“People always have a stigma, or a misconception, I think, about homelessness. They assume it’s an addiction thing only, or people who aren’t willing to be employed. I always like to help people be aware that homelessness in our community is a direct result of the employment and wages available,” Freeman-Belle said.

Additional services provided through the cold weather shelters include transportation and access to resources for clients, and inviting individuals who have experienced and overcome homelessness and other challenges to speak with guests with the hope of inspiring and encouraging them through the situation.

“We let them speak and share their story, and provide hope and examples to the guests that they’re not alone, and that they can do it. This can be a page of your story; this is not the end of your story,” Freeman-Belle said.

WARM focuses not only on providing shelter and resources during cold months, but also operates a transitional housing program. This program primarily focuses on helping mothers and their children, Freeman-Belle said, and maintains an over 75% success rate in getting clients on their feet and out of homeless situations. For one year after clients leave the transitional housing, WARM provides aftercare by providing in-home services, and continuing to help individuals work toward their goals, and helping them to learn how to prevent crises rather than only responding to them.

Thanks to increased funding from meeting state and federal benchmarks, recent regional endeavors that WARM is collaborating on includes working on increasing landlord engagement, and operating and growing a permanent supportive housing program.

The permanent supportive housing program currently provides support and housing to 30 adults who are chronically homeless, meaning they have an accompanying disability. Freeman-Belle said the hope is to obtain more funding for this program so that more individuals in this situation can be helped.

“It is a solution; it is not a band-aid,” she said. She hopes to expand this program, because the solution for individuals on a fixed income who also have a disability will have to be different from an individual who is able to be employed.

WARM and its regional partners are also striving to work more closely with area landlords. Valley Community Services Board, in particular, oversees this operation. Funding has allowed them to hire a housing case manager and fill housing navigator roles, brand new positions in the community.

“For Waynesboro, specifically, people assume that when we talk about housing costs and rent affordability that we are simply advocating for subsidized housing and for public housing programs. On the contrary, having affordable rent is different than saying people need subsidies or public housing. It’s saying that people deserve to have a community where they don’t have to work two or three jobs to pay rent. Or, if they can’t afford rent, that they have to choose a sub-standard or hazardous place. That is unfair when they’re working hard.”

A third collaborative endeavor is the goal to fund “rapid re-housing,” said Freeman-Belle. This support assists individuals or families who face a sudden emergency that severely impacts them financially, aiming to protect them from, or pull them quickly out of, a period of homelessness.

With Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week this week, Freeman-Belle plans to continue advocating and educating others about the issues.

“We’re not pretending we have all the solutions. We’re not pretending we have enough resources. But having this conversation and really talking about the goals, and admitting that there’s a need in the community is the first step,” said Freeman-Belle.

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