By BRIAN BREHM
The Winchester Star
WINCHESTER — One of America’s top authorities on homelessness said a storm is coming to Winchester.
Robert G. Marbut Jr., who served as executive director of the U. S. Interagency Council on Homelessness during the final year of President Donald Trump’s administration, said the homelessness crisis that has confronted Washington, D.C., for decades is moving west and Winchester is going to be swept up in the wave.
Virginia’s decision last week to stop accepting new admissions at five state mental hospitals — including Western State Hospital in Staunton, which serves residents of the Northern Shenandoah Valley — is only going to hasten the situation, he said.
Marbut visited the George Washington Hotel in Winchester Thursday and Friday to participate in a leadership conference for Citygate Network‘s Bluegrass District, which covers Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. Citygate Network is a national nonprofit that promotes faith- based initiatives to shelter and support homeless people. Brandan Thomas, executive director of the Winchester Rescue Mission homeless shelter on North Cameron Street, serves as the Bluegrass District’s vice president and was responsible for bringing the annual leadership meeting to Winchester.
Marbut, who lives in Texas, is a controversial figure among advocates for the homeless, primarily because he contends it is ineffective to provide housing for homeless people if recipients aren’t first given the tools to help themselves overcome the physical, financial and mental health problems that caused them to become homeless in the first place.
Marbut said the core cause of homelessness is almost always mental health. An untreated mental illness or condition can lead a person to self- medicate with
drugs and alcohol, miss time at work, become alienated from family and friends and, eventually, become homeless.
Virginia’s current policies for helping people with untreated or unmedicated mental health issues aren’t helpful, he said. If police determine a person is in crisis and poses a threat to self or others, he or she can be detained in a hospital setting for 72 hours. Marbut contends the detentions are not helpful because a person in crisis can’t understand that he or she needs help and, when the detention period ends, he or she is sent away with the underlying mental health issue unresolved.
Winchester Police Chief John Piper agreed.
“ Right now in the commonwealth, the main mechanism for someone who is absolutely resistant to getting help is to take them into custody on an emergency custody order, and that requires statutorily them going to the emergency department [of a local hospital],” Piper said on Thursday night. “What we’re finding is that we are essentially babysitting people in the emergency room ... and then they’re getting released right back into the environment.”
Marbut said many people think the solution to homelessness is simple: Provide housing for homeless people. However, that doesn’t work unless access to housing is backed up with a plethora of health, counseling and job-training services.
“ It’s a lot like renting a car versus owning a car,” he said. “ If you own a car, you take better care of it than you do a rental car. When you’re paying for your own housing, you take better care of it.”
When mental health issues are addressed as part of the re-housing process, Marbut said, recipients stand a much better chance of holding down a job, supporting themselves financially and securing a decent place to live.
“ If you don’t deal with the cause on the front end, you’re never going to get good outcomes on the back end,” Marbut said.
Ending homelessness will require major financial investments, but Marbut said some of the money needed may already be available from existing programs and initiatives that could be retooled to provide better outcomes. For example, housing vouchers that allow homeless people to get off the streets and stay in hotels are a great humanitarian gesture, but once the vouchers expire, recipients are once again homeless and nothing has been done about the underlying cause of their situation.
Thomas agreed, saying there have been several times in the past when residents of the Winchester Rescue Mission, which forbids clients from using alcohol or drugs while staying there, left the shelter when they received housing vouchers, only to return a few weeks later when the vouchers ran out. Sometimes they started self- medicating again when they weren’t under the mission’s supervision, so when they came back to the shelter, they had to start the recovery process over again.
“ My thinking is, you’ve got to merge housing and services together,” Marbut said. “You’ve got to have the stability that housing provides, and you’ve got to have the treatment that deals with the problem. ... If you don’t deal with the root causes [of homelessness], it all just starts cycling again.”
To learn more about Citygate Network and its mission to end homelessness, visit citygatenetwork. org.