Who defines the narrative of homelessness? A conversation with The Haven’s Ocean Aiello

By Kristin Adams, Anna Grace Chang, Mahima Reddy, Subhi Saibaba, & Tuyet-Minh Tran

1. Do you have any comments or thoughts you would like to share regarding housing inequity in Charlottesville? If so, what have been your experiences or observations?

So many thoughts. I will say that it’s such an important issue that has its roots in a history of inequality, purposefully enacted — which is a story that’s not unique to Charlottesville by any means. Recently I've been reading and coming back to Charlottesville’s Low Income Housing Coalition (CLIHC) report on racism’s impact on affordable housing in Charlottesville. I highly recommend it; it’s so important and it does a wonderful job bringing to light how Charlottesville enacted racial covenants and barred people of color from getting loans. It includes history on everything we know about how the federal government and communities prevented people of color from owning their own homes, from gaining access to that very important intergenerational wealth. What I want to say about my thoughts about it — I’m still learning so much. I’m learning from the elders in this community, from people like Charlene Green, for instance, who was the manager of Charlottesville Office of Human Rights and is now the deputy director of Piedmont Housing Alliance. I’m also learning from board members and my coworkers who have lived here all their lives - especially from my Black coworkers who could speak to their experience growing up in Fifeville and can attest that it’s not what it once was. Speaking of gentrification, the expansion of UVA into Black communities, and just the fact that so many of their friends and family members of color have been pushed out. So these things are unfortunately common in so many parts of this state and this country, but definitely hearing those personal stories has been impactful. Around 65 percent of the people we assisted last year in various forms, whether with housing programs or the day shelter, we know more about them demographically. The majority of them are actually local, they’re from Charlottesville, they’re from the surrounding countries, and this area of Virginia. To me that communicates that these people have families, they lived at home, and it is nearly impossible to get and maintain stable housing if you don’t have a safety net, or a family member to cosign for you (for example, most students in the community often have parents cosign for them). There’s data in this CLIHC’s report that it costs around  $45,000 for a family of three to live in Charlottesville, which is insane if you consider what it means to work a full time minimum wage job, you’re going to be making half of that. Yes, we’re dealing with a housing crisis, but this is nothing new, it’s just the product of a hundred years of racist housing policy in the city that has continued to be over people’s heads. If we don’t change things on a policy level and on a community level it’s only going to get worse, and it’s pretty bad right now.

2. Do you think there is a difference in difficulty between finding initial housing and maintaining it as opposed to moving from transitional housing to more permanent housing? 

I feel like that’s a really great question for someone who is on our housing team. I'm not the best person to answer this question because most of the time I hear about these things secondhand. The Haven has housing programs that support folks experiencing housing instability and homelessness along a spectrum. We work with folks who are chronically homeless who have experienced homelessness for one, two, many years, or have experienced homelessness multiple times over the course of their life. Those folks are often struggling with the biggest barriers and need wraparound support. They might need peer support for battling substance use issues, assistance caring for mental illness of different kinds, they might need to work with someone in regards to dealing with vital disability benefits, they might not be physically or mentally able to hold a full time job and pay rent. Those are the folks who are going to have the most difficulty maintaining housing, but that is why we have case managers who are dedicated to those individuals and are helping them get to a comfortable place where they can maintain stable housing, as these are the people who are often left behind the most. So identifying how we can best focus time and resources on these individuals is super important. On the other end of the spectrum, we have a prevention program to stop people from ever experiencing homelessness. These are community members living on the edge and are just one medical bill away from falling into homelessness. We want to prevent anyone from ever entering the system because it is inherently traumatic. That's why we have programs on that end, where it’s more of a one time interaction, for example, a payment to cover a month’s rent to prevent them from being evicted. We don’t really follow these people, and it’s a different experience compared to the individuals our case managers work with. We also work with people who fall between the two ends of this spectrum, for example, those who need help with first month's rent, a security deposit, a little bit of assistance with housing navigation, and maybe a connection to one or two community organizations that can assist them with other stabilizing services. This can look like folks who are re-entering after incarceration, sometimes we might connect them with Home to Hope, where they get a peer support specialist who has lived experience of re-entering after incarceration and can help them bridge those gaps. 

3. Are there any initiatives or programs at The Haven that have been implemented to reduce housing inequity (pandemic vs. pre-pandemic)?

We have our hands in so many things and that’s a special part of the Haven. I think there’s a culture of encouraging everyone to find their strengths, and be empowered through the use of them. We want people to identify what they’re interested in, how they can be helpful, and how they can share that with another person. You see that at work with things like the writing group that Rob coordinates. You can see that in our kitchen managers, who have a love for food and nutrition and feeding people and providing choice wherever possible. You can see it in the artwork, in the photos that were taken in collaboration with community photographers.  You can see it throughout all of the different interests people have. There are so many special parts. We have folks who use our services and then come back to help others. Our values acknowledge that everyone comes with a unique set of strengths and experiences, and we welcome all of that here at the Haven. There’s something important in all of this that needs to be shared. When I was applying to this job, just seeing the Haven’s ability to build relationships with different organizations, Our Community Bikes, and even mainstream ones like the Department of Social Services and the VA. These are hugely important relationships, and they are often able to help boost people into housing because they have access to different funds and different support services that we can’t provide. Or for example, with Region Ten, or Partner for Mental Health, getting their support is important because we’re not mental health providers here at the Haven. We encounter people in mental health crises often, but it’s technically not included in our training or our background. We have to work closely with these other organizations in order to get people’s needs met and get them cared for.  It’s such a neat piece about the Haven, about Charlottesville, that our size allows us to have these relationships with other organizations. 

For example, my coworker Lindsey is the Housing to Home coordinator who works with guests housed through Haven programs. She helps beautify their spaces through connecting them to local artists, buying craft supplies, plants, furniture, and decor- all directed by the individual. She works part of her time here at the Haven and part of her time at New City Arts Initiative. That’s an incredible program we have, and an example of our connectivity to different community organizations that might have different missions than us, but that still work with us to create these beautiful, robust relationships that benefit everyone. I think it’s super special.

I recently read the book Palaces for the People, that was mainly about libraries, but generally talked about how vital green spaces and other public spaces are, and how they can be used in a variety of ways to open outwards to the community. That’s where we are right here at the Haven. We’re situated in an old church that’s big and beautiful. It’s incredible to me that we can host weddings, but also use it as a shelter at the same time. It’s remarkable to hold these two groups proximate, and I can only hope that we can have more public spaces in the future that can be used in a similar fashion.

4. Can you comment on which factors seem to contribute significantly to housing inequity in Charlottesville?

I think a huge piece of it is what I referenced to earlier, which is these historic actions and policies to keep people of color from owning property, from living where they want to live, and from achieving this huge source of wealth that so many white and middle class families were able to access (and continue to do so). I think that we are just seeing the ramifications of that and it’s even more sinister. I think U.Va. is a massive reason why there is displacement happening in a lot of historically Black communities. They are a massive institution, and many folks work there who are classified within a lower income status, so I’m very happy to see that U.Va.’s employees are unionizing, I think that’s going to be influential. I think that U.Va. has a lot of work to do, and we are just at the beginning of acknowledging and sharing these stories of deep historic wrongs toward this community. At one time in Charlottesville, after the civil war ended, the white population was the minority, and that has not only flipped, but it has decreased significantly, which is a testament to people, specifically Black families and lower-income families, being pushed out.

  The cost of living here for many reasons is insanely high. It’s more expensive to live here than in other parts of the state. For me it’s the lack of politicians and city council members, the lack of leaders at the University, the lack of nonprofit leaders, the lack of so many people in acknowledging that housing is a human right… It needs to be a combination of “Yes, I believe in reparations for descendants of the Black communities that were razed, and it needs to be a combination of economic reparations in different policies to repair those historical wrongs, and there also needs to be an emphasis on expanding [housing choice] vouchers and making it more difficult for landlords to deny people housing for things like vouchers or criminal justice history.

5. Why do you think there is a lack of adequate action and attention being paid to homelessness by community and political leaders?

It’s hard to say, and that’s something that I continue to explore in my role here as the narrative around housing is very strong. I read somewhere recently that the term “affordable housing” for a lot of people communicates that it is an economic issue, and economic issues in this country on a large scale are seen as an individual’s problem- not a problem that reflects on the community or the failing of that community. I think we have a lot of really smart people in this city and in this state, but I think we overcomplicate the solutions to problems, and that’s something that I’m working through both personally and professionally, expanding my knowledge on everything rooted in housing policy and criminalization of poverty, which I think is important to some level. But, I also think that actually, [the solution] can be pretty simple: We can get people into housing by mobilizing this community to house people. I don’t know the exact way to do it, but we do tend to overcomplicate a lot of problems. there’s probably a lack of education, and there are so many misconceptions around homelessness that even the most socially educated or “woke” people might not be attuned to. 

The issue of homelessness has been left out of conversations around housing affordability for a really long time. The homeless system of care has been viewed as separate from the issue of housing affordability and housing communities and their redevelopment, which is really interesting to learn about because homelessness is absolutely connected. It occurs when you don’t have enough affordable housing and when you bar people from housing.

There are massive barriers, which is why folks have to live in these situations without leases and are not offered or afforded the very few protections that tenants have. It’s crazy how much people are up against when they are trying to achieve basic stable housing. A lot of our folks are required to submit 2-3 times the normal security deposit because their credit is so bad, and to me, a credit score is super arbitrary and a ridiculous thing to bar people from accessing things that necesitate living a healthy life.

6. How prevalent do you think gentrification is in Charlottesville, and do you think it plays a role in housing inequity? If so, how?

Yes, absolutely. I think that the Charlottesville Low Income Housing Coalition does a wonderful job of capturing stories of people who have lived in Charlottesville for a long time and how they have seen their immediate micro-communities change within a couple blocks. I guess I have a personal stance because I live on the outskirts of Fifeville, and it’s a historically Black neighborhood that has been pretty extensively gentrified. Just talking to Herb, my coworker — I live a block and a half down from where his daughter lives, which is the house where he grew up in, and his sister lives next door. Just hearing his stories about developers approaching him to buy his house- because he’s on a street that’s right in front of a massive housing complex that caters to graduate students and medical students, so right by the hospital, that’s just an interesting anecdote when learning about displacement.  I also think about the Belmont community that had a large number of Black families, and if you spend time in Belmont, that’s definitely not the case any longer, and if you drive down Belmont Street, there are so many short-term rental homes (like Air bnbs), which is something I am personally trying to learn a lot more about, and those can have a huge impact on gentrification of the neighborhood, and also the lack of community, as there’s people just going in and out every week, and there’s no relationship being built between these guests, between renters and homeowners. To be honest, I’m still learning so much about gentrification and how it plays out in this city, how we can stop displacement. It’s something that’s hard for me to sometimes grapple with — we are such a responsive group here at The Haven, in that we respond to people in crisis, but how can we also mobilize our volunteers and our supporters to think bigger picture? We want to end homlessness, but we want to make sure we are not managing homelessness; we want to look at the bigger picture and make sure that we are supporting different organizations within the community and legislative policies that prevent people from ever experiencing homelessness. It is very daunting and exclusive when working with policy, so trying to figure out how much time and effort to put into making sure we are talking and moving forward on those issues, in addition to our day-to-day work, is important.

7. Can you comment on the impact of racism on affordable housing in Charlottesville?

The Haven sees a disproportionate number of people of color who are experiencing homelessness, re-entering from incarceration, you name it. This is a physical example of the racial inequities that generations upon generations have dealt with. These people and their families are wildly resilient, but it must be crushing to face these policies that can uproot families and friends from each other, whether from gentrification or over-policing of Black neighborhoods.

8. What do you hope changes about housing inequity or unequal access to housing?

Housing is a human right, eviction is a violent act, and experiencing homelessness for any amount of time is traumatizing. I hope people realize that society’s conception of homelessness is wildly inaccurate and is usually just a tiny glimpse into the actual experience. Stephen talks a lot about how, as a volunteer, you get to see how homelessness never presents in one way or form, and I hope that people realize how ensuring safe and stable housing is the most humane thing to do. Caring for our neighbors and the generations that come after us will also create a more vibrant community. Housing is the bedrock of a person living their best, healthiest life, and I hope community conversations and actions can center around this. We also need to address disparities, not just on a personal or organizational level, but on the community, state, and federal government levels.

Within the Haven, we want to start incorporating more of a justice model - what can we do to end homelessness and not just manage it? How can we push for change on a greater level? Even The Haven staff are grappling with what it means to end homelessness. That’s certainly our mission. But when we’re here day-to-day putting out all these little fires, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger issue at hand. This is something we’re doing our best to engage with, and we’re excited to bring volunteers onboard to continue challenging us and pushing us toward greater change. For shift supervisors who have to manage pretty much all of the shelter’s services, it’s hard to sit down and have thirty-minute conversations with people, which means that we can’t fully give them the attention and listening ear they deserve to figure out how to help them. We do the best we can, but we don’t always do it well because we’re so busy. But that’s where volunteers come into play. We’re doing our best to hold better orientations and educational opportunities and show that The Haven is a place of learning for everyone. There are real risks about re-traumatizing people within the space of The Haven, and we all have a lot of work to do.

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