Open Doors

Guests wait for the Open Doors rotating homeless shelter to open at the Islamic Center of Shenandoah Valley in December 2016.

On Jan. 22, volunteers will attempt to count all of the homeless residents of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, according to Michael Wong, executive director of the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

The count is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development annually because the department funds programs to support the homeless population in Virginia.

The Western Virginia Continuum of Care is responsible for organizing the count and was established to work to eradicate homelessness in the counties of Clarke, Frederick, Page, Rockingham, Shenandoah and Warren, and the cities of Harrisonburg and Winchester.

“The Point in Time count helps us to get a more accurate idea of who is in need of our services and how we can help them,” said Rachel Howdyshell, the director of Open Doors, a rotating seasonal homeless shelter in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.

Last year, the count tallied 132 homeless residents in Harrisonburg and Rockingham. Nearly 30 were children and nine were found in places not fit for habitation.

Wong said he is anticipating the number to have risen since last year, but he said it is possible it went down.

Eleven chronically homeless people have been housed in the past four months thanks to the implementation of the Built for Zero program in the Western Virginia Continuum of Care.

Over 80 communities across the country have adopted the Built for Zero program, which aims to combine and streamline many of the complicating factors in solving homelessness.

“We feel like this is really one of those best practices that our community has embraced, and hopefully it will make a difference to those living out in the streets,” Wong said.

Over the past five years, the number of homeless individuals in Harrisonburg and Rockingham has hovered between a low of 129 in 2014 and a high of 149 in 2018.

“The trend we are seeing is our number of different individuals hasn’t really grown this much this season,” Howdyshell said. “But what we are seeing people are in need of our services for a longer period of time.”

Howdyshell said that new trend seems to be caused by the lack of affordable housing.

The city of Harrisonburg is focused on finding short-term solutions and building long-term plans to address homelessness, said Mike Parks, the director of communication for the city.

“This Point in Time count will definitely help inform some of these conversations we’re having,” Parks said. “We need as much data as we can get our hands on.”

However, the count does not include the many people who are dealing with housing instability. Housing instability refers to a more open-ended struggle with housing, such as constantly moving, trouble with rent, and staying with friends or relatives on a couch.

Also, because the count is done on only one day, it does not capture those who may be in the hospital or in jail, Wong said.

Wong encouraged members of the community to volunteer to help perform the count. Last year, over 20 volunteers visited areas such as Salvation Army, Open Doors, and other areas to try and get as clear a picture as possible.

“It is a great opportunity to break down the barriers and misunderstandings of homelessness,” he said.

Wong told those interested in volunteering to contact him or visit

Contact Ian Munro at 574-6278 or Follow Ian on Twitter @iamIanMunro

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