A local minister spoke to the Galax City Council recently about what she said is an ongoing homelesseness problem, and calling attention to the area’s “invisible population.”
While the agenda item at the August meeting was for informational purposes only and offered no action for council to vote on, Jill Burcham of PUSH Ministries delivered the information with her characteristic passion for the topic.
“Every community has homelessness,” she said. “But the amount we have in Galax has gotten out of control.”
Burcham said she wanted to share problems, but also talk about solutions.
She said that one of the biggest contributors to homelessness was The Life Center, an addiction treatment facility in downtown Galax.
“There has been a big influx of people leaving The Life Center [on their own] or they get asked to leave,” Burcham told council. “They’re just put out on the street,” which means Chief DeWitt Cooper and the Galax Police Department or the staff at PUSH Ministries has to interview them.
Burcham said she’s had at least one man come to PUSH’s office on North Main Street “who had been detoxing on Suboxone, who had to be taken to Pulaski to finish detox.” Another man came in who “had a bit of an attitude” and prompted the ministry to call the Galax police. The officers discovered he had two warrants in Richmond, “and he was walking our streets,” she said.
Other sources of homeless people include recently released prisoners from a re-entry program, Burcham said. “Right now, Hope House has six people from the re-entry program there, and there are some more walking the streets. The probation officers just processed six more and there’s no housing. There’s nowhere to put these people. They’re letting them out of prison and they have no place to go.”
Initially upon release, they might not know they’re going to end up with no place to stay, said Burcham. “They’re going home to family members who they think will open up their arms, and they’re kicking them out so they’re out on the street! Thank God for [Kisha Johnson and Delina and Bill Parks of God’s Storehouse & Soup Kitchen], so at least these people can eat.”
There are few places to go for those without homes. A shelter in Roanoke only takes people from Roanoke now, Burcham continued. She said Tammy Harmon, director of Hope House in Galax “is finding people sleeping under the stairs... Macado’s is finding people sleeping in the dumpsters.”
PUSH has some means to help people, but they only go so far, she noted. “Our job is to interview them, see if they need addiction recovery, see if they need housing. We formed a fund that we put people up at the Rodeway Inn. An employee there works with us closely and gives us good rates. He also calls us where there’s challenges. This is not a 9 to 5 job. At 70 years old, I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked in my life, but it’s out of a passion for this city.”
The problem isn’t confined to Galax, either; to illustrate how widespread it is — and how packing people off to other localities ultimately won’t be a fix — she described discussions with ministries in other areas.
Burcham said she and Galax Vice Mayor Beth White were at a ministerial association meeting “where pastors were talking about how many phone calls they’re getting for people who want to be put up in a room because they’re homeless.”
Despite good intentions, the problem of helping people in these circumstances remains expensive, she said. “The mountain of money it’s costing! We put three people up today.” There were no resources for a homeless woman with kids who asked for help, according to Burcham, since she was not being abused, but “she’s run out of money and has a 7-month-old baby.”
Burcham said that tent cities have formed in odd corners of Galax, and it’s possible to see people urinating on the sides of public buildings or engaging in illegal behavior in public gathering spots, like the downtown gazebo — located roughly across from PUSH headquarters — which she claimed is a place where people smoke weed or stash drugs.
“That’s not cool,” Burcham said.
Chief Cooper later corroborated Burcham’s speech, saying that the problems as described by her were real and needed to be addressed.
“I’m not asking for money; I’m just asking for awareness,” she stated.
Council Member Sharon Ritchie said she had noticed some of the things Burcham was speaking about, such as apparently homeless people on the streets, or those “who have just never been there before.”
Mayor Willie Greene agreed with Burcham. “I’ll tell you, Galax is not unique in this. I went to a meeting with the Mount Rogers Planning District Commission. Council members from Bristol were talking about how bad it is [with tent cities]. They’re looking at some ordinances. There’s a city next door that’s very strict, so they’re coming across to Bristol. It’s people in Smyth County, Washington County, and other areas... If anybody knows the solution, please answer.”
Burcham praised Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Company, which she said is often a good source of employment for people trying to live honestly and break out of the cycle of poverty and homelessness.
“It’s sad, but it’s a challenge,” Burcham said of the overall situation. “And we want to protect all the hard work people have done in Galax, and the police need to be able to concentrate on bigger things. So I thank you for being patient with me. I’m just very passionate about this.”
“Thank you for making us aware of this,” said Greene. “And for your time, and your passion.”