Voters didn’t have a say in nearly 75% of local Central Virginia races this year — because there weren’t enough candidates
Most local races this year were already decided for voters in Central Virginia, where more than 60% of candidates were running unopposed and more than12% of contests didn’t draw enough registered candidates to guarantee an elected official will fill the seat.
The lack of choices follows a years-long trend that has magnified a weakness in democracy: without competition, the power in who is elected to serve isn’t exactly with the people.
This can leave residents at risk of inadequate representation as school boards set district policies, city councilors vote on new housing developments and county supervisors decide what to do about skyrocketing tax rates — and having a lack of people in top local positions makes it difficult for governments to get things done.
But getting more people to run is a complicated issue plaguing localities nationwide.
The jobs are time-consuming with little-to-no pay, threats against elected officials have scared some people off and, unless you’re a Republican in a rural area or a Democrat in a major city, the odds of getting elected aren’t favorable.
“You get who shows up and sometimes that is not the best candidate to be there,” said Amanda Burns, one of four people who ran unopposed for Charlottesville City School Board. “I think it is important to understand policy decisions, and sometimes when we’re not engaged or involved in the process, we don’t always get the right people in those spots.”
Elected officials face threats and intimidation
Burns, a first-time candidate and mom of two boys who have been students in City Schools, said she weighed the physical and mental toll of joining the School Board amid instances statewide where members were facing aggressive pushback for their policy decisions.
Last year during a Page County School Board meeting, a Virginia mother said she would “bring every single gun loaded and ready” if mask requirements stayed in place. She was later charged with making an oral threat on school property.
Brenda Sheridan, a Loudoun County School Board member, received anonymous death threats and faced a recall campaign led by Fight for Schools, an organization that has protested at board meetings over teachings on racism and COVID-related closures.
“I don’t think anyone grows up dreaming of being screamed at until one in the morning by angry crowds at town meetings or school board sessions,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “But increasingly, that’s the price of admission.”
Reports of physical attacks remain rare, but roughly half of local officials nationwide have been insulted and a third have been harassed, per a September report from Princeton University and CivicPulse.
Threats and harassment are higher for women and people of color, according to the analysis.
The potential for violence can be difficult for people who feel that running for political office could mean endangering their families or their neighborhood, said Lynlee Thorne, political director at Rural GroundGame, an organization recruiting and supporting Democratic candidates in rural Virginia — a place Democrats have historically languished in.
“That is the number one challenge,” said Thorne, a Rockingham County resident. “[There’s] a real lack of accountability, lack of pushback and lack of taking this very, very seriously and recognizing we’ve made a very distinct and troubling shift in terms of our acceptance of how it’s OK to engage.”
More about criticism directed at Charlottesville leaders
Running for office has always required taking criticism and opposition, but some officials say the attention has negatively intensified in recent years.
In conversations Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook has had with potential candidates, the greatest hesitation is not wanting the stress that’s come from politics becoming “extremely nasty.”
Snook’s seat was 1 of 3 City Council races that went uncontested in Charlottesville — which also had four School Board slots go unchallenged, a fact Snook classifies as “pretty unusual.”
As a criminal defense lawyer for the past 40 years, Snook said he isn’t personally phased by the vitriol because there’s not a name he hasn’t already been called. But not everyone can brush off the chaos and hurling of insults, Snook added.
“These are supposed to be your friends,” Snook continued. “These are people who you’re going to see in the grocery store. Your kids play on the same sports teams together. Why are you doing this?”
Local governments rely on volunteers for a time-consuming job with little-to-no pay
Rural counties have the added challenge of smaller populations, where there’s barely enough people to fill the seats that need filling and “you do just start running out of people who can or are willing to serve and who can stick around,” said Zachary Bullock, who served on Scottsville Town Council from 2017 to 2023.
If people move even a little bit, they can be deemed ineligible due to not being within town lines.
That means that in a roughly 550-person town like Scottsville, which is tucked among Albemarle and Fluvanna counties, it’s hard to get more than just the six council seats plus the mayor slot filled — or to have any competition for the town’s unpaid positions.
Statewide, the pay varies widely county-to-county. While Scottsville’s council is unpaid, a councilor in Mineral can make $100 per month while one in Charlottesville earns $18,000 per year.
Keeping the six-person town council up and running relies on new people and fresh feet in the race to keep Scottsville moving, and “if you don’t have the population base to do that, that is a risk to the town,” Bullock said.
The risk could include policy decisions — like determining where houses and businesses go, how to resist being overwhelmed by Airbnbs and improving conditions of the parks and farmers market — being slow to move forward, he said.
But there’s a general consensus among residents that volunteers are the backbone of the town, and that “one way or another, we will get it done,” said the Mayor Ron Smith, who jokes that he’s a lifetime “volunteer-holic” himself.
In college, he was in a service fraternity before joining the Navy. He later joined the government services committee to get a feel of what council and local governance was like before being appointed to Scottsville council in 2010 when a member resigned due to health issues.
There have been a few years where the number of candidates didn’t match the vacancies, but Smith said he can’t remember a time where they weren’t filled at all in his 16 years in Scottsville.
Dillwyn’s town council in Buckingham County only had 3 of 6 needed candidates certified prior to election day — all were existing council members — but state elections data shows it’ll have a full board due to additional write-in people being voted in.
In Mineral and Gordonsville, there was only one candidate for the singular town council positions open.
The one Scottsville Town Councilor seat this year that the Virginia Department of Elections site said didn’t have a person running would be filled with a write-in candidate who Smith says had a paperwork issue that kept them from being certified by deadline. The elections site hadn’t updated with a name as of Wednesday but showed the write-in receiving 92 votes.
Aileen Morse, who was appointed in March to replace Bullock after he resigned, won the other available seat.
The downside in Scottsville, however, is that relying on a core volunteer group to show up no matter what the project is — whether it’s keeping the trails trimmed or putting signage up to mark a pathway — raises the potential for burnout, Bullock said.
Some moved there recently. Others grew up in the town. Many are on multiple committees, and those who are appointed or elected are doing it with their free time, said Town Administrator Javier Raudales.
The time commitment can be grueling for those with full-time jobs. Bullock recalled going from a day of being a teacher for Charlottesville City Public Schools to hours of committee meetings or looking over developer plans and hearing concerns from residents.
For Smith, a day could start with a 9 a.m. Chamber of Commerce meeting, be interrupted by a call that he’s needed at the funeral home he owns for a few hours and then continue back with mayoral business into the late evening.
Another day could be completely different.
“That’s what’s fun about it. You never know what’s gonna happen,” Smith said. “And you got to be ready to jump when the phone rings.”
Political polarization means many communities are governed by a single party
Most local races are considered non-partisan, but that doesn’t mean party politics doesn’t influence them. For example, in Virginia, more than 400 candidates this year were registered as Republicans. More than 150 were Democrats. The rest, nearly 1,700, were Independents, per data from the state Department of Elections.
Charlottesville Tomorrow reached out to the Republican Party of Charlottesville, along with several local Republican committees, and did not receive any response.
You get who shows up and sometimes that is not the best candidate to be there.
—Amanda Burns, one of four people who ran unopposed for Charlottesville City School Board
The problem with the primaries deciding the general election is that it puts the power of lawmaking into the hands of the small percentage of the electorate who votes in them, said political science professor Farnsworth.
The aftermath is a state where the red areas are getting redder and the Democratic parts are getting bluer.
Farnsworth noted that a part of the reason why so few races are contested can also be tied to the decline of local media. Half of the more than 3,000 counties nationwide only have one newspaper, and almost 200 have none at all, according to a University of North Carolina Chapel Hill report on news deserts in the U.S.
This can obscure awareness that these seats are going unchallenged in the first place due to lack of coverage. It also means that residents aren’t in-the-know about what local politicians do — and how they affect their day-to-day lives.
“Media outlets are squeezed to the point that even covering the meetings is a challenge,” Farnsworth said. “Because they’re not covered, they’re not really part of what the public is thinking about.”
The lack of competition can turn residents away from voting — due to a belief that their vote doesn’t count since the election is already decided — and from entering a race where they have unfavorable odds, said Lauren Coletta, senior advisor at Common Cause Virginia, a voting and government transparency advocacy group.
“The reality is, no one’s going to invest a lot in a Democrat in central Virginia outside of Charlottesville because their chances of winning are so low,” Coletta said.
So in rural counties, Republicans usually have the stronghold in state and local offices and continue to keep it.
There was a national push from Democrats to pump money into hyperlocal races, like school board and city council, in rural GOP territory this year in states like Virginia to make inroads in reversing the trend. It’s unclear how successful that push was.
In some places like Greene County, which has historically leaned Republican in state races, interest from the Democratic party is building as more Democratic voters move to the county, said director of elections Jennifer Lewis-Fowler.
Of the 12 localraces in Greene, 7 went uncontested; two were filled with write-in winners; one for Soil and Water Conservation director position didn’t have enough candidates; and two — Board of Supervisors and School Board — were competitive. All ran as Independents.
You do just start running out of people who can or are willing to serve and who can stick around.
—Zachary Bullock, who served on Scottsville Town Council from 2017 to 2023
Thorne from Rural GroundGame said changing the pattern will rely on asking good questions and making space for people to be heard in an otherwise hostile political environment.
“Which is such a hopeful thing,” she said. “But to me, that’s part of the solution.”
And the solution won’t be easy. Political science professor Farnsworth says Virginia is seeing a “Washingtonization” of its politics, with “two armies in the trenches, fighting each other with no middle ground.”
Burns, one of the newest Charlottesville City School Board members, said the lack of education and mentorship for people navigating the process is yet another hurdle on top of the hyper-polarization.
But Smith, Scottsville’s mayor, remains as optimistic as Thorne despite the glaring challenges and long road ahead to mending them. This could be, in part, because in a place where neighbors take the time to know and trust each other and where residents want to make their community better, it’s easier to find those who want to be engaged.
“You just have to keep working on people and eventually, most of them will come around,” he said, chuckling.
The first Black speaker of the House of Delegates takes pride in his rural roots
At first glance, Don Scott doesn’t come off as someone who can relate to the oftentimes hard life in rural Virginia. The U.S. Navy veteran, trial attorney and lawmaker from Portsmouth, who was just nominated by the House Democratic caucus as the first Black speaker in the legislature’s 404-year history, is rarely seen without one of his many fitted designer suits and alligator-skin cowboy boots. Pictures of his dark-blue electric 2022 Porsche Taycan 4S have made wide rounds on social media.
But behind the flashy facade is a humble and thoughtful man who says he is proud of his roots in rural Texas, who has done hard time in federal prison and, most recently, who has formed an unusual friendship with Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County.
“I’m country as hell,” Scott said, smiling, during a recent interview at his House minority leader office on the 14th floor of the new General Assembly Building in Richmond. His desk is bare, the bookshelf behind him is empty, and his belongings are packed up in numerous boxes scattered around the room, ready to be moved to his new, much bigger office down the hall.
As the designated 58th speaker of the House of Delegates, Scott is aware that many voters in the western part of the state are skeptical, even concerned about what his party’s recently regained control of the General Assembly will mean for their livelihoods.
But Scott, 58, vows that he will always take seriously and listen to the people in Southwest Virginia and Southside — including those who’d never vote for him.
“Southwest Virginia, Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, Southside and Central Virginia all benefit from the commonwealth. The rising tide is what lifts up the boats, right?” Scott said. “We are the commonwealth of Virginia. We’ve got to get rid of this parochialism and this animosity of one against another. I want to be just as focused on Southwest Virginia’s success as I am on Northern Virginia’s success, because at the end of the day, you have to be able to empathize with everybody.”
Hackworth, one of the most conservative senators in the legislature, who has tried to ban abortion altogether in Virginia, believes that Scott’s interest in the Southwest is genuine.
“When we first connected, I told him that I’m a businessman, and Don is a businessman, and that was the first point we connected on,” Hackworth said in a phone interview. “Whether you’re an attorney or a small-business owner, you have to run things, you have employees to take care of, and there’s still a lot of common ground where we connected. And he said, ‘Travis, I like you, I’d like to get to know you better.’”
Just recently, Hackworth invited Scott and his wife, Dr. Mellanda Colson Scott, a dentist in Norfolk, and their daughter to spend a long weekend with him and his wife, Angel, and their daughter. Scott accepted, and on the third weekend in December both families plan to tour the Pocahontas Exhibition Coal Mine & Museum in Tazewell County, hike the trails in the far Southwest, visit a finished stretch of the Coalfield Expressway and, they hope, see a few of the Rocky Mountain elk that were relocated into Buchanan County from southeast Kentucky.
“I want to show him what tourism has done to transform Southwest Virginia,” Hackworth said.
Naturally, the new friendship between the two lawmakers is also driven by mutual economic interests. Hackworth is hoping for more government funding for the 5th Senate District, which he represents, and other parts of the Southwest.
“We’ve done well with the limited resources that we have, but being able to have Don come down as the new speaker of the House is a unique opportunity,” Hackworth said. “We’re not asking for a handout, we’re asking for a hand up, just help us. The dollar value in Southwest Virginia is really good because we know how to stretch a dollar.”
There are plenty of nonpartisan issues for Republicans and Democrats to come together on, Hackworth added.
“We are miles apart on maybe some social issues, but other kitchen-table issues, those are definitely things that I think we can connect on, like cleaning up waste coal in Southwest Virginia and making it a better place for drinking water and the environment, education, housing, which we desperately need, and workforce development. All that is nonpartisan,” Hackworth said. “I think that these are the areas where I want to connect with Don. That’s the reason I asked him to come down, he accepted, and we are really happy to be able to do that.”
Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, said that Scott’s background and willingness to connect with Republican legislators from Southwest is unusual for a Democrat, but it could benefit both sides.
“Given the fact that the Southwest Virginia delegation is almost entirely Republican, the political influence of the region is greatest when there is a Republican majority. And because Democrats tend to do poorly in the region, a number of Democrats might not be interested in focusing on the region’s concerns,” Farnsworth said.
“But the incoming speaker’s background suggests more familiarity with the concerns of rural areas and an expressed willingness to reach out to the region, even if it doesn’t elect members who are Democrats.”
While Scott is proud of his country roots — he grew up in Jasper, a town of 7,000 in Deep East Texas about 40 miles west of the Louisiana state line — he said he feels comfortable moving in all population settings.
“I also spent a lot of time growing up in Houston, which means I know both rural and urban well,” he said in the interview. Upon graduating high school, he went to Texas A&M University, majoring in agriculture.
Following his undergraduate education, Scott served as a Naval officer until 1991, when he received an honorable discharge. He went on to obtain a law degree from Louisiana State University Law School, but shortly after his graduation in 1994, he was arrested by federal agents on a single charge of conspiracy to possess, related to a crack cocaine distribution ring.
Despite pleading no contest as a first offender, Scott was sentenced to 10 years in a federal prison, of which he served seven and a half.
More than 22 years after his release, Scott looks back at his time behind bars as a life lesson that has taught him important traits, such as empathy and relatability.
“I think there are some people who, when some adversity hits, they fold up,” he said. “I’ve been blessed to be able to overcome adversity, which gives me a different insight into what folks are going through and what they might need, to be able to empathize. I’m grateful to be in the role that I am, and I am also grateful for all my experiences, and for my mistakes and scars, because you learn from scars and then you can move on.”
Scott said he was among thousands of nonviolent felons who had their civil rights restored under former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, which eventually allowed him to run for public office. Scott added that he was “really disappointed” in Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who all but ended the restoration programs of his three predecessors — including McDonnell — that automatically restored the rights of at least some people convicted of felonies who have served their terms.
People with felony convictions seeking to have their rights to vote, run for office and serve on a jury restored are now required to file an application given to them once they are released, but critics have called this process arbitrary and less transparent, pointing out that several thousand Virginians have been removed from the voting rolls without explanation.
“I think he says one thing and does something else,” Scott said of Youngkin. “When he claims what his values are, he doesn’t make decisions in line with those values. So I’m always concerned when I see that type of hypocrisy.”
Scott said that under his leadership House Democrats will “look into how all of those people were disenfranchised. We don’t know where those people were, where those votes were, which districts they were in, but we are going to get to the bottom of that.”
While it isn’t known if Youngkin’s new policy has impacted last week’s election one way or another, Scott said that those affected deserve better either way.
“These people’s rights were restored by another governor, and then this governor comes along and takes them away,” Scott said. “They don’t know if they can get them back, they don’t know if a mistake was made. Even if they were notified, they don’t know what this means. Sometimes folks don’t know.”
Youngkin, Scott added, may not really understand the impact it can have on someone when they lose their civil rights.
“But I know what that means,” he added. “And I think when you do that and you play with people’s lives like that, you probably need to have some self-reflection on who you are and what you are doing, because that’s just wrong.”
However, Scott signaled that he does not want to see his life reduced to the image of the former felon-turned-politician who understands the system because he has lived it.
“I also want to talk about the fact that I’m a trial attorney, that I have a great marriage, a great family,” he said. “I’ve been vetted by my voters now three times in my district, I’ve been vetted by my caucus, I’ve been in leadership twice now. I think I’ve been blessed, and I am grateful to be in this position, because I don’t think you earn this kind of stuff. I think it’s only by God’s grace that I get to be in these kinds of roles.”
Scott was first elected in 2019 to represent what then was the 80th House of Delegates District, which includes Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Suffolk. He ran unopposed in the primaries and defeated James Evans, the Republican nominee, and independent candidate Ryan Benton with 66% of the vote.
Two years later, Scott won his second term in the House, topping Republican Deanna Stanton, again with 66% of the vote. Because Democrats lost their majority in the House during that election, Scott in April 2022 led a revolt to oust Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, the former speaker, from her leadership role.
A little over two months later, House Democrats elected Scott as their new minority leader, after fending off challenges from Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, and Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, who also competed for the leadership spot.
Just days after Democrats regained the House majority last week, Scott’s caucus nominated him for the chamber’s top job on Sunday. Within just four years, his rapid ascent to speakership was complete.
But Scott denies that it was impatience that put him on a fast track to the third highest office in Virginia. “I would not say that I’m in a hurry, I’m 58 years old, man, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, laughing.
“Look, I’m not impatient, I don’t know the plans of God the almighty,” Scott said. “I’ve been in a position where I have stayed true to my faith and my purpose, and true to my vision, and I have been propelled by, I believe, just trying to stay in that will and at the same try to serve as many people as I can to do the most good.”
Despite his short time in the legislature, Scott said that he isn’t worried that he may not have the experience and the skill set needed for his future role.
“I think I’ve demonstrated that I’m a pretty quick learner, I think that’s what it takes here,” he said. “I’m well read, I love reading the rules, I love knowing what’s happening. I think I’m prepared. But don’t get it confused, I know that I have much, much more to learn, I know that there are things that I don’t know that I don’t know yet, so I’m going to be a sponge to try to continue to learn as much as I have and to continue to be an asset to the commonwealth of Virginia.”
After Scott was nominated Sunday, outgoing Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County, turned to X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, to assure his successor his full support.
“I want to congratulate Don Scott on being chosen by his caucus to make history as the next speaker of the House,” Gilbert wrote. “Serving as speaker has been the greatest honor of my lifetime, and I will work with the incoming speaker to ensure a seamless transition of the institution.”
Scott said in the interview that he is well aware of the historical significance of being the first Black American among Virginia’s 58 speakers of the House.
“I am grateful for this role, I know there were people who came before me who were Black and who probably were more talented and gifted than I am, probably greater orators, who never had this opportunity because of their skin color,” he said. “I know that I stand on the shoulders of giants and that my ancestors, who probably were here, had their humanity discounted during the time that this Capitol was being built. I think that I will always carry that with me.”
But at the end of the day, Scott said, Virginians want leaders who are “competent and empathetic, who have been going through some adversity in life, and I have. And that’s why I am grateful to be the first Black speaker, but I’m also grateful to be the speaker who just happens to be Black, and I think that’s a big difference.”
Despite Scott’s historical moment, he is aware that despite their gains in the legislature, Democrats still face working with a Republican governor who will likely scrutinize every piece of legislation they will send him.
Talking to reporters at Richmond’s Capitol Square on the day after the election, Youngkin said that the close election has shown that Virginians want both parties to work together.
“Virginia has historically moved back and forth from control of one party in the legislature to the other, the governor’s races with very thin margins, and we saw that on display again last night,” Youngkin said. “And I think what that reflects is the fact that we are a state that is very comfortable working together, across party lines, in order to get things done. That’s exactly what we have done over the course of the last two years, where we have worked with a legislature that has had a divided government, and we are going to continue to do this.”
While Scott agrees that last week’s Democratic victory doesn’t equate a mandate, he added that a lot of races that candidates from his party lost were very close. “I think this shows us that’s where most voters are, they want us to work together to get some things done, but they also want their freedoms that they rely on to be protected,” he said.
“I think that voters told us that they don’t like the government in our bedrooms, that they want people who are responsible gun owners and they want to continue to protect them,” Scott said. “Voters also told us that they want an economy that works for everybody. The fact that the governor would propose a billion-dollar tax cut in this environment for corporations while we still have schools that aren’t fully funded is a misplaced priority.”
Still, there are areas where Democrats and Republicans are likely to find common ground, Scott said.
“I think we can work together on things around education, around mental health, around stemming the tide of opioid addiction, around making sure that we have gun violence prevention and safety-focused, responsible gun owners,” he said. “I think those are the things that we can agree on with the governor, and we look forward to working with him on those things.”
The Republican defeat, Scott said, is Youngkin’s opportunity for “a reset and refocus” on Virginia.
“I think he had some other goals maybe, but now he gets the opportunity to really be a governor for everybody, as I view myself. I’m not the speaker for the Democrats or the Republicans, I am the speaker of the people’s House, and I take that responsibility very seriously, and I want to make sure I’m fair to everyone at all times, no matter what political party you serve in.”
Stepping into his new role, Scott vows to share his blessings with everyone in Virginia. “I think this country has been great to me, the commonwealth of Virginia has been great to me and my family, so the vision that I have for my own family, I want that for every family.”
And despite his personal setbacks and adversities in the past, Scott is determined to look forward. “I think persistence and resilience pays off in the end, and as Dr. King said, ‘It is best that the arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice, and I think we continue to bend a little closer to justice.’”
15 months after a flash flood devastated parts of Southwest Virginia, state aid is on the way
More than a year after a devastating flash flood hit Buchanan and Tazewell counties, residents whose property was damaged or destroyed can finally start the process of applying for state flood relief money.
Delegate Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, who was instrumental in securing the $18 million, said Friday he hopes those who qualify will receive the money before the end of the year.
To help affected residents get the application process started, information sessions will be held Wednesday in Bandy and Whitewood.
“Many of the flood victims lost everything they own with no ability to rebuild. The assistance will give them hope for a better future,” said Morefield.
Morefield said a crowd is expected at the meeting in Whitewood, where there was a lot of property lost and damaged.
Buddy Fuller, a retired resident of Whitewood who has rental properties in three counties, said he plans to be at the meeting Wednesday. He hopes to recoup some of the money he’s spent cleaning up a trailer park he owns off Dismal River Road and wants to rebuild, an apartment building in Whitewood, a number of damaged rental properties and a barn, and replace some sheep that got washed away.
Flood relief information sessions
Meetings about how to apply for state aid will be held Wednesday for residents of Buchanan and Tazewell counties whose homes were damaged or destroyed in the July 2022 flash flood.
Tazewell County: 4:30 p.m., Bandy Community Center, 3290 Bandy Road
Buchanan County: 7 p.m., Whitewood Community Center, 7424 Dismal River Road
He said those in the community don’t seem to be angry over the budget impasse that held up the relief funding because they knew it would eventually come through.
“We’ve just been waiting,” Fuller said Friday. “I know with our legislators, Morefield and Hackworth [Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County], if there’s any way to get the money, they’re going to get it for us.”
As with the relief fund for those hit by flooding in August 2021 in the town of Hurley in Buchanan County, the money will go through the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, which is hosting the community sessions. The meetings are open to the public and no registration is required, Morefield said.
The meetings will include information about the application process, eligibility requirements and program guidelines to assist residents in applying for the disaster relief program, according to DHCD.
The relief program will offer a grant of 175% of the local assessed value for property that is classified a total loss or had major damage. For properties that can be repaired, eligible applicants can receive assistance to make repairs or be reimbursed for work that has already been done.
The devastating flash flooding hit parts of eastern Buchanan County and western Tazewell County on the night of July 12, when about 6 inches of rain fell over just a few hours. The resulting flooding damaged roads and bridges, destroyed homes and caused power and water outages. There were no reported deaths or injuries.
According to an online dashboard maintained by United Way of Southwest Virginia, a lead agency in the recovery effort, 21 homes were destroyed; as of Aug. 31, six had been built to replace them. Another 25 had major damage of $10,000 or more, and 18 had been repaired. Twenty-five more homes saw damage of $10,000 or less.
So far, United Way has spent $574,441 on the repairs and construction and $225,049 remains, the dashboard states. All of the money came from donations.
Less than a year earlier, a similar storm occurred in the Guesses Fork area of Hurley, a community about 30 miles away. It also resulted in major flooding, the destruction or damage to dozens of homes and the death of one woman.
Following both storms, the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied financial help to individual homeowners, saying that the damage wasn’t significant enough to warrant aid. Most of the homeowners did not carry flood insurance.
FEMA’s response to the Hurley disaster prompted Morefield to propose a statewide flood recovery fund that would pay for property losses that weren’t covered by insurance or federal aid. There was a budget earmark of $11.4 million for Hurley relief.
Initially, Morefield had sought $11 million in relief money for the areas hit by the July 2022 flooding, but he increased the amount to $18 million when local damage estimates increased.
Those in Hurley also had to wait for state relief money due to a budget stalemate, although it had been ironed out by June 2022. The first state funds went to Hurley residents in December 2022 — 16 months after the flooding.
It’s been 15 months since the Whitewood flooding.
Local and state officials have said the Hurley flood left them better prepared for the Whitewood disaster, and they decided that the framework developed for the Hurley relief money will be used for Whitewood.
As with the Hurley flooding, those who want to be reimbursed for work that’s already been done must provide receipts, Morefield said.That requirement slowed down the process in Hurley, as did a shortage of contractors to do the work.
Applicants in Buchanan County can apply at the Buchanan County Department of Social Services in Grundy, while those in Tazewell County can apply at the Tazewell County Administration Office on Main Street in Tazewell.
“We are excited to start taking applications and get the much-needed assistance to the flood victims,” Morefield said. “The program is unlike any flood relief program in the United States and the governor referred to it as a model program. Our region is grateful the General Assembly and the governor offered their support for our request during a time of crisis. I have been extremely impressed with the Department of Housing and Community Development and all of the local partners for their commitment to help.”
Charlottesville had — and lost — a shelter that social workers say could have helped hundreds of unhoused people off the streets
Market Street Park has looked a little different the past couple of weeks.
What was once a mostly empty greenspace has become a bustling community of people — living in tents. They’re singing songs, smoking cigarettes (and other things), playing and “knighting” one another with plastic swords, sharing meals and creating lots of trash. There have been some fights, including a stabbing. A dog got loose and caused chaos.
The tent community, or rather, the visibility of it, has catapulted the city into turmoil, and brought into plain sight the growing number of homeless individuals living in Charlottesville.
“We sleep on the stoops, you know,” said Gregory Adams, one of the unhoused people camping in the park. “You didn’t see us as much as you do right now, but we were still there. Just like the rats. We were still there.”
Their sudden stark visibility means people all around the city are talking about the tent community and are inundating city leaders with demands to do something about it. City leaders want to address it — and the issue of homelessness more broadly. With the tent community growing, they’re working on a plan.
At a City Council meeting Monday, Oct. 2, City Manager Sam Sanders presented a “homeless intervention strategy.” The city’s main focus is on opening an additional shelter — or several.
“But I’m not running to do that at this moment because I don’t know how big that facility needs to be, and I don’t know if it is one, two or three facilities,” Sanders said. “Because, in that population, there are differences among what the issues are and we need to address them where they are. And that might mean that we have, this facility does this, this facility does this, and another facility does this.”
The thing is, for two years, Charlottesville had a shelter that successfully took some of the city’s most difficult to house people — many who came from similar situations as those camping in the park — and found them homes.
People And Congregations Engaged in Ministry (PACEM, pronounced “pah-chum”) ran the shelter at the old Red Carpet Inn on Premier Circle from May 2021 to June of this year.
By the time the shelter closed on June 30, its staff had helped 91 people — some of whom had been homeless for more than a decade — find and move into housing. Fourteen guests left without a key to a place of their own, but most of them had leases lined up, or a housing subsidy to help them find a place. A massive feat, according to shelter staff, social workers, and local healthcare providers.
“I hoped for half that,” said Jayson Whitehead, PACEM’s executive director.
More about Premier Circle
It’s something few shelters, anywhere, are able to do. Many shelters lack funding for case management staff and services. And, even if they have it, it is extremely difficult to find homes for people who have low or no income, bad or no credit, criminal histories, prior evictions, or even no form of identification. It’s even more difficult when the people in these situations have mental health or substance abuse issues, which is often also the case.
Some of the people — PACEM calls them guests — who landed at Premier Circle had been homeless for a decade or longer, said Whitehead. One guest, a woman in her 80s, hadn’t had a place of her own in more than 20 years.
Had the shelter continued, its homeless service workers are convinced they could move hundreds more people off the streets. But it closed this summer because the COVID-19 funding that made it possible dried up. Even if PACEM had received money from local governments to continue the shelter, it couldn’t have continued in that location — the buildings were falling apart.
For those reasons, PACEM leaders said they had little hope of re-creating this kind of shelter in the near future. But, with Charlottesville now crying out for a solution to homelessness, and Sanders searching for solutions, could this be the city’s chance to bring that type of shelter back and make it permanent?
Finding 91 people housing seemed like a miracle — but it wasn’t
About a month before the shelter closed, Heather Kellams, PACEM women’s case manager, sat in her office. She’d tacked a fundraising calendar featuring a photo of a butterfly on the wall, and neatly organized stacks of paperwork, some more than a foot high, on the windowsill.
“Sometimes when I drive my car out of here, I’m like, ‘How did we just house that person?’ or ‘How did that happen?’” Kellams said. “How did I just find a private landlord that has two or three apartments available? How did we find places for people with sex offender charges, assault charges, seriously mentally ill, schizophrenic? How did that just happen?’”
Kellams grew up in Charlottesville and has been a social worker here for nearly 30 years. She worked with teenagers convicted of crimes before joining PACEM four years ago. She knows the area, and its people.
And while finding housing for dozens of homeless people in the area might have seemed like a miracle, it wasn’t that at all.
It had everything to do with the type of shelter they were running and the services they offered, said shelter staff and the volunteers who worked with them. And the many hours of hard work that staff and guests alike put into it, said Kellams.
The shelter at Premier Circle was a low-barrier shelter, meaning that people using drugs or alcohol, or who had a criminal history, could stay there. That is not the case at most overnight shelters, anywhere.
Compared to other local shelters, Premier Circle had fewer rules than the Salvation Army, another overnight shelter. And The Haven, another local shelter, is a day shelter only — people do not sleep there.
Many of the folks who landed at Premier Circle weren’t eligible to stay at, or had been kicked out of, other shelters. Some didn’t want to stay at other shelters based on past experiences, but had burned bridges with friends, family and others who might help them. Others had become homeless after losing their jobs, or having serious, debilitating medical issues that left them unable to work and pay rent, or stay safely in other shelters.
“People who are unhoused often have mental health needs that may include major depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, substance misuse or abuse,” said Brenda Doremus-Daniel, a clinical social work psychotherapist at UVA Hospital, who worked with guests at Premier Circle. Add medical comorbidities on top of that, and these folks are particularly vulnerable and also more difficult to find housing for, she said. That’s part of why Premier Circle was so special.
“Premier Circle provided a more stable living situation, so folks could focus more on medical care and mental health care,” said Doremus-Daniel. “It’s really hard to do insight development, learn coping strategies, and evolve into the best version of ourselves when we are worried about where we’re going to sleep. You can’t do your best problem solving when you absolutely have to focus on your most pressing needs.”
At Premier Circle, each shelter guest had a private room with a bed, a bathroom, and other basic amenities. They received fresh linens and towels, as well as regular meals and all the coffee they wanted. They also received mental and physical healthcare from UVA Medical Center nurses, doctors, psychiatrists and medical students.
“The services that case management at Premier Circle had available actually increased the likelihood of attendance in the UVA University Medical Associates behavioral health clinic,” said Teresa Radford, a UVA nurse who has worked with unhoused patients.
That the shelter was located on a single site and allowed people to stay for an unlimited period of time mattered, too, said Kellams. Case managers and staff could find their clients easily, and they could rush to a client’s room in case of an emergency — something that’s difficult, and sometimes impossible, when working with people living on the street.
It’s very hard to get disability. You get denied all the time. That’s your life. You’ve got to have it if you can’t work, and a lot of people just can’t get it. So when people get disability around here, it’s a huge, huge thing.
—Heather Kellams, PACEM women’s case manager
“You lose touch with them,” said Whitehead.
“And then they get in more trouble,” said Kellams.
The two sat together in Kellams office and gave each other knowing looks.
“They kept tabs on us, for better or worse,” said Chris, a shelter guest who didn’t want to share his last name, in part because he said he’d “spent time in jail.” He wouldn’t say what for.
Sometimes the middle-aged man said he needed a little extra push from his case worker to take the next step, and because he was staying in one place, his case manager could easily find him to give him that push.
The best part of Premier Circle, Chris said, was that he wasn’t stressed while staying there.
“We’re not sleeping on the street, on concrete and bricks, which can really put a toll on somebody’s body,” he said. “Don’t have to dodge cops just to find a place to sleep at night. And I can sleep comfortably at night. I don’t have to worry about keeping on guard. I’m not stressed.”
Chris said a few different things contributed to him living on the street, including time at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail (the “Avon Hilton,” he called it), and being evicted.
He’s tried other shelters in town, but he said they stressed him out.
Chris is also very ill. He has sleep apnea and, in 2018, had a vertebrae removed from his spine.
“I got both feet in the grave,” he said. It took him four tries to get disability benefits from the government, but he finally did while staying at Premier Circle.
“It’s very hard to get disability. You get denied all the time. That’s your life. You’ve got to have it if you can’t work, and a lot of people just can’t get it,” said Kellams. “So when people get disability around here, it’s a huge, huge thing.”
Chris recently moved into an apartment at the newly-renovated Crescent Halls, a subsidized apartment building for seniors and people with disabilities owned and operated by the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority. It took “a five mile stack of paperwork,” he joked, holding his hand over his head and looking at the tall stacks of papers on Kellams’ office windowsill.
“I can’t wait to wake up one morning and have a nice big breakfast,” he said, inhaling as if he could smell his meal. “Scrambled eggs, fried potaters, sausage, a couple slices of country ham. Biscuits. I’m not talking no store-bought biscuits. Homemade. It’s my great-grandma’s recipe.”
One of the biggest challenges is getting enough stability to get through the paperwork
Getting Chris and other guests to the point where they could do something as ordinary as wake up in their own homes and cook their own breakfasts took an extraordinary amount of work.
When a guest arrived at the shelter, PACEM used what staff calls “case management bingo,” a protocol for getting folks “stable enough so that they’re not going to break the rules and get kicked out of the shelter, because if they get kicked out we can’t work with them,” said Kellams.
For instance, Kellams encouraged one of her clients to have six, instead of 12, drinks one day so that the client would be lucid enough for a mental health appointment, or for an hour of filling out paperwork.
But that was only the beginning of the long, winding path toward housing.
For the duration of the Premier Circle shelter, PACEM had two full-time case managers (including Kellams) and two part-time case managers. PACEM’s operations manager and evening shelter director both provided significant case management, even though it wasn’t their full-time job, said Whitehead. Other shelter staff, like shelter monitors, frequently pitched in as well.
Whether or not a guest was motivated to walk that path with their case manager, mattered too. Most were, but not all.
Case managers had to figure out what each individual person’s situation was in order to best help them. Does that person have income? Can they work? If so, what jobs are available for them? If not, do they receive disability or social security benefits? Are they eligible for those benefits? What do they need to apply? Do they have a criminal history? A prior eviction? All of that matters when looking into what sort of help, or housing, someone might attain.
It’s hours upon hours of paperwork. And none of that paperwork can be completed without IDs, and some guests — like Chris — arrived at the shelter without one. Everything is then put on hold while case managers help find copies of birth certificates and social security cards, and even take them to the DMV so that they can get a state-sanctioned ID.
After the case managers have a full picture of their client’s situation, they apply for housing subsidies. There are a variety of types of housing subsidy, but in general, subsidies exist to help people who cannot afford to pay market rate rent in their area. Oftentimes, people pay a portion of their incomes (whether it’s from a job, social security, or disability benefits) toward rent and utilities while the government covers the rest.
Each type of subsidy has eligibility rules, and there are a number of organizations in the area that can issue them. The Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority has a certain number of subsidies and vouchers available, as does the Albemarle County housing office, Region Ten, The Haven, Virginia Supportive Housing, and the Veterans Administration, as well as a few others. But all of those programs have long waitlists.
Most Premier Circle guests ended up with some sort of housing subsidy. And once they had the subsidy in hand, they began looking for a place to live. Case managers and shelter staff looked at countless apartment listings, talked with private landlords they already knew, talked with management at apartment complexes, and avoided the landlords and complexes they knew from experience would not rent to a PACEM client.
They got a lot of denials, said Kellams.
“What made Premier Circle successful was the incredible pursuit of [housing] by this core team,” said Whitehead. “You’re talking about tirelessly calling this person, that person, filling out paperwork again that you filled out two months ago. It was dogged.”
And when people do get accepted, the homes must be inspected to make sure they meet the conditions laid out in the subsidy, and then they sign the lease. Along with that, there’s the matter of paying first and last month’s rent. Some guests were able to save up for that while staying at the shelter while others received assistance from PACEM’s Secure Seniors program or another local organization.
The work didn’t end there. PACEM staff helped people find furniture for their apartments and helped them move into their new homes.
For 91 people.
Having stability to find housing ‘changed the game’ for one couple
Lydia Wolfe and Justin Cave moved from Premier Circle into an apartment of their own in December 2022. By summer, it was starting to feel like home: Walls covered in vintage horror movie posters; a bookcase full of DVDs, punk CDs and fantasy novels; shelves covered with vintage toys and cartoon figurines.
They laugh whenever someone points out that their last names match their décor.
“It feels like our own little cave,” said Wolfe, looking at a Dracula poster and smiling. “I don’t think we had that before.”
Wolfe and Cave have been together for about nine years, and homeless off and on for three of them. They say they often feel unsafe in the world: Both are members of the queer community and both struggle with their mental health. Cave has been hospitalized for mental health treatment.
Wolfe, who is nonbinary, is also physically disabled: They have arthritis throughout their entire body, suffered injuries in two serious car crashes and have Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the thyroid. On top of that, their spine is deteriorating.
Cave is estranged from his family, and most of Wolfe’s family has died.
The couple became homeless at the end of 2019, after leaving what they said were multiple emotionally abusive situations.
At that point, Cave was working. But Wolfe’s arthritis was so bad, they had to quit cosmetology school — a lifelong dream — because standing up was too painful. Walking was just about impossible.
The couple lived in a hotel for a while before renting a trailer home in West Virginia, where they lived until 2021. The walls and ceiling were falling in, there was a huge hole in the bathroom floor, said Cave. They decided they’d rather be homeless than live in the trailer.
“It was traumatizing and demoralizing,” said Wolfe.
They put their things in a storage unit and drove to Warrenton, where they first stayed in a shelter. Cave got a job working on a farm, then got a better-paying job working on another farm, one that offered housing to all of its employees. The couple started to feel stable again. They had housing, they had income.
But then Wolfe got sick. Really sick. It was gallstones, and Cave sometimes missed work to care for Wolfe.
One night, when Cave was working the night shift, Wolfe woke up to sharp abdominal pain so severe they couldn’t take a deep breath. Cave left work to take Wolfe to a hospital in Culpeper. Test results showed that Wolfe’s gallbladder was completely infected and needed to come out, immediately.
Wolfe was transferred by ambulance to Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville for emergency surgery, with Cave following behind in his car. But the surgeon told Wolfe that he wasn’t comfortable doing the procedure. He worried that Wolfe’s gallbladder might rupture during the operation, which would make Wolfe more susceptible to sepsis. He recommended putting a drain in Wolfe’s stomach and after a month, surgery would be safer.
Wolfe was in the hospital for four days, and Cave did not leave their side. He lost his job and thus their housing.
They had 30 days to leave their home. But Wolfe was scheduled for surgery around the same time. Wolfe tried everything: Calling the homeless hotline in Charlottesville and a similar resource in Culpeper, following every possible lead to dead end after dead end.
“Everybody was telling us, ‘We have no resources. We don’t know what to tell you,’” Wolfe said.
Wolfe called the surgeon’s office and said, “I don’t know how we’re going to do the surgery, because we’re going to be homeless.”
The couple moved their things into a storage unit once more, and lived in their car for a few days. Through the doctor’s office and the Blue Ridge Area Coalition for the Homeless, they got a room at the Affordable Suites of America, an extended stay hotel on Harris Road in Charlottesville so that Wolfe would have 10 days to recover post-surgery.
Ten days turned into two weeks, which turned into a month, then another month. Every time they went to the front desk to settle up, BRACH had extended their stay. Cave and Wolfe joked that some wealthy vigilante, maybe Charlottesville’s version of Batman, was helping them out anonymously. But that wasn’t exactly the case. BRACH used government COVID-19 emergency funds to pay for hotel stays not just for Wolfe and Cave, but for a number of folks who were, or became, homeless throughout the pandemic.
This was the last place we could go, and we got rejected. I felt like nobody was listening to us, that we had no voice, that people were willing to see us die on the street rather than do anything and everything they can.”
—Lydia Wolfe on their search for housing in the Charlottesville area
When their hotel stay neared the end, the couple looked at shelter options, but none of the local shelters could meet their needs. Wolfe needed a place that was private so they could take care of their post-op scars and recover from the major surgery. The Salvation Army houses people together in large rooms with bunk beds, and The Haven is a day shelter only. Wolfe said that other social services agencies said they had nothing for them and suggested that Wolfe go into a nursing home and leave Cave to find shelter himself.
The couple did not want to do that.
Wolfe and Cave were even turned away from Premier Circle. Staff weren’t sure they could meet their medical needs, said Kellams. Staff also had concerns about Cave’s mental health.
It was devastating to the couple.
“This was the last place we could go, and we got rejected,” said Wolfe. “I felt like nobody was listening to us, that we had no voice, that people were willing to see us die on the street rather than do anything and everything they can.”
Then an attorney with Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center got involved and said that by refusing the couple care for those reasons, Premier Circle was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, Kellams said.
After working through some legal logistics with Legal Aid and PACEM, Wolfe and Cave got a room at Premier Circle. “Once we got in there, we didn’t have to fight to get help anymore,” Wolfe said.
“They feed you, they take great care of you. They always had someone you could talk to,” said Cave.
After a few months at the shelter, and with Kellams’ help, the couple got a housing voucher and found a one bedroom apartment in Albemarle County, just outside Charlottesville City limits.
“PACEM gave us so much in such a short amount of time. It changed the game. We may not be where we want to be completely, but PACEM gave us a chance,” said Wolfe, who is now working toward a G.E.D.
Wolfe and Cave are upset that the shelter is closed. They believe that other people should have the chance at the help they received.
“Something has to be done,” Wolfe said.
Looking for resources for housing, health, transportation and other types of support? Bookmark Street Sheet Resources, produced and kept up to date by various agencies. It has resources you can use or share with neighbors, and have printable versions in many languages.
Pandemic grants got Premier Circle started, but there wasn’t enough to keep it going
That PACEM even had the opportunity to do this kind of shelter work was an anomaly, one that would not have happened without the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the early months of the pandemic, Piedmont Housing Alliance and Virginia Supportive Housing received a repayable grant to buy the Red Carpet Inn for $4.3 million. At first, the old hotel would serve as an emergency shelter for people especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
PACEM’s expenses for the shelter averaged $75,000 per month ($900,000 per year), and most of that was staff wages. That’s probably about what it would cost to re-start the shelter in a different location, plus the actual building cost. Other significant expenses were providing dinner every night and supplies to keep the shelter going, like cleaning supplies, air filters and gloves.
PACEM did not have to pay rent on the site, and the Blue Ridge Area Coalition for the Homeless covered water, electricity, Wi-Fi and security cameras. Piedmont Housing Alliance, which owns the site, covered maintenance.
So, while PACEM staff went into the shelter project knowing that it would end, they didn’t anticipate creating a shelter model that would work as well as it did.
Because of its wild success, Kellams, the women’s case manager, was certain that the shelter wouldn’t have to close, it would just have to move. She thought that surely the community would hear of the good work PACEM had accomplished at the shelter and a wealthy philanthropist or two would step up and say, “Here’s the money, here’s a space.”
But no such person showed up. For a moment, Kellams wondered if she was too optimistic, but decided that wasn’t the case. To her, and other shelter staff, it seems like a no-brainer.
“Our work speaks for itself,” said shelter monitor Jessica Eubanks on the last day of the shelter’s operation. “I’m not saying that other organizations don’t play their key roles. They do. But none of them have this.”
UVA Medical Center staff agreed.
“Premier Circle offered something that we don’t commonly see amongst other cities that I’ve worked with, or cities that UVA would work with, like Staunton or Waynesboro,” said Jack Hooppaw, a patient advocate in the homeless services arm of UVA Medical Center’s Population Health Program. “But, I think it’s kind of the ideal state.”
Premier Circle wasn’t perfect, said Kellams. They had to kick some people out, and had a waitlist dozens long from the moment it opened.
Once staff knew the shelter would be closing, they stopped taking guests and focused on housing everyone who remained. Guests panicked over being displaced. Staff said this was heart-wrenching. So was saying goodbye to the 20 guests who died while staying there.
And, perhaps the most difficult part, shelter staff said, was working with people who consistently refused to do things like fill out paperwork, or attend appointments with their case managers and doctors.
Charlottesville says it wants to increase shelter beds and housing opportunities
Still, a shelter like Premier Circle — one that is low-barrier, rife with services, and in a set location — could help the city address many of the issues it is now trying to solve regarding homelessness, said Whitehead, PACEM’s executive director.
In fact, it’s very similar to one of the long-term goals City Manager Sam Sanders has in his newly-unveiled homeless intervention strategy, Whitehead said.
“In Sam’s long-term plan, he’s marrying year-round shelter with a lot of housing opportunities, which is what is needed. And like we experienced at Premier Circle [over] the last year.”
Part of why PACEM staff were able to move so many shelter guests into permanent housing was because people heard about the shelter’s work and opened up more subsidies and housing opportunities to shelter guests, said Whitehead.
Anthony Haro of the Blue Ridge Area Coalition for the Homeless, also says an increase in shelter beds in Charlottesville should be matched with more housing opportunities.
“Housing ends homelessness,” Haro said. “If our community only increases shelter capacity and not permanent housing capacity — new rental units, rental assistance opportunities, supportive services in housing — we will face significant challenges in assisting people in leaving those new shelter units for housing.”
The plan Sanders presented to Council on Oct. 2 proposes doing exactly that: increasing shelter capacity as well as housing opportunities.
A shelter has to be able to move people into housing so that that bed can be available for the next person who needs help. A full shelter means people are still living on the street. Many typical emergency shelters in bigger cities, like Richmond, have a 45-day limit, said Whitehead, but that’s not always enough time for someone to get back on their feet.
Premier Circle offered something that we don’t commonly see amongst other cities that I’ve worked with, or cities that UVA would work with, like Staunton or Waynesboro.
“Premier Circle was unique in that folks more or less lived there for years,” said Whitehead. Staff had time to work with them.
Premier Circle offered something that we don’t commonly see amongst other cities that I’ve worked with, or cities that UVA would work with, like Staunton or Waynesboro. But, I think it’s kind of the ideal state.
—Jack Hooppaw, patient advocate in the homeless services arm of UVA Medical Center’s Population Health Program
PACEM still runs a winter overnight congregate shelter. Like Premier Circle, it is a low-barrier shelter and doesn’t have a stay limit. But the shelter moves every couple of weeks, from church to church. Charlottesville’s only year-round overnight shelter, the Salvation Army, doesn’t have a stay limit, but it is stricter than PACEM’s operations.
If the city decides it wants to fund a permanent low-barrier shelter, Whitehead says PACEM is ready. “We’re stepping up and saying we want to help, but we need to have a place to do it.”
Right now, the organization is working with the City Manager’s office to open its seasonal overnight congregate shelter. It was slated to open Oct. 28, but might open early to potentially shelter folks staying in Market Street Park.
PACEM’s seasonal shelter will be able to give 35 men and 15 women a place to sleep this year. If they need to shelter more people, they partner with the Salvation Army, which offers extra space in a warm room. (The Salvation Army’s 58 beds are usually full.) Whether that will be enough, staff aren’t sure. Last winter, the demand for shelter beds was double what local shelters could accommodate.
More about shelters in Charlottesville
Some of the folks staying in the park told Charlottesville Tomorrow last week things they like about the park. They lined up with what former Premier Circle guests said about why they liked the shelter.
A 32-year-old woman said that right now, the park gives her a chance to rest. She said that she isn’t able to rest when she sleeps on porches, nor in her apartment where she said she doesn’t feel safe. In the park, she doesn’t have to worry about being woken up by police or others. And, with all the people around, she said she feels safe there.
And though she likes the park for now, she knows it’s not a feasible long-term solution.
She’d heard that PACEM wasn’t going to operate this year — likely confusing Premier Circle with the seasonal congregate shelter — and said she wasn’t sure what she’d do when it gets cold. She also said that she’s wary of some of the service providers in town.
And Gregory Adams, who is camping at Market Street Park, said he was kicked out of the Salvation Army’s shelter and has been sleeping downtown ever since.
The tent community there, and unhoused people living on and around the Downtown Mall, was the subject of many public comments during that Oct. 2 City Council Meeting.
Sanders said that he had received many emails from community members about his choice to lift the curfew on the park at the end of September, and the tent community that popped up immediately after. “I’ve been told to ‘tell people to get out of the park,’ to ‘give us our park back, I don’t care where they go,’” Sanders said.
“That has been hard to hear, not because I can’t take the criticism, but because I can’t accept that the desire to transfer a problem is the right way to go. We need to solve the problem. I don’t apologize for caring about people.”
City Councilor Michael Payne mentioned during the session that the council had received many emails from community members asking them to “discipline” Sanders. Council will not be doing that, Payne said.
Community comments were passionate, and mixed.
Some spoke about how unhoused members of the community are keeping people away from downtown and therefore negatively affecting businesses.
Others were appalled at the way the community, broadly, treats people who are unhoused. “The rhetoric around our unhoused community members is, quite frankly, abhorrent,” said a resident named Anna, who did not give her last name.
Shannon Ellis, whose apartment is on the Mall, described seeing open-air drug use and stepping over discarded needles, and asked the city to enforce its “quality of life” laws surrounding noise, public disturbances and public urination.
“For months, in order to leave my apartment to go anywhere, I’ve had to walk past an unhoused man who regularly shouts obscene words and comments at me and the other women who pass him,” Ellis said. Recently, she saw him violently assault a woman, and though he was arrested, she said she questioned why the issue was only addressed after he hurt someone.
Some folks advocated for a low-barrier, overnight shelter run either by PACEM or The Haven. Like PACEM, The Haven is open to running such a shelter, Anna Mendez, the organization’s executive director, said during the meeting. Commenters advocated for more deeply affordable housing, supportive housing, and wraparound services like mental health care and case management. Elizabeth Stark, an anti-eviction advocate, also asked the city to implement a Marcus Alert program, which would provide a behavioral health, rather than law enforcement, response to a behavioral health emergency.
Some said they were concerned that adding more homeless services will bring more people who are unhoused to town.
That’s already happening here, Sanders said during his presentation to Council, before public comment. People are already coming to Charlottesville and Albemarle County, from other nearby counties, for services.
During his presentation on Monday, Sanders emphasized that while the tent community at Market Street Park is at the front of people’s minds right now, it’s not the sudden problem many people think it is. It is just the latest symptom of a long-simmering issue. While he’s working on a short-term solution, he told the community they’d have to be patient.
“This is complex. There is no quick fix. There is no simple answer. There is no easy solution,” Sanders said. “It is going to be painful. The community has to appreciate that. It is going to hurt to deal with this, in more ways than one. That is not an easy thing for us to just wipe away as a problem. It doesn’t happen that way. It is very, very complex. It is very complicated, and costly.”
However, the people who relocate for services are more likely to be families rather than individuals, Popov wrote in his report. And, when these folks have access not just to shelters but to well-funded supportive housing programs, they’re likely to participate in them. That actually decreases the overall unhoused population.
“As a result, the benefits of expanding funding for programs targeting individuals likely outweigh the costs,” Popov wrote.
PACEM shelter staff say that the community also has to manage its expectations about what a shelter, even one like Premier Circle, can accomplish. Even the best shelters cannot get everyone off the streets, they say. Whitehead has seen people refuse shelter beds and even free apartments.
Howard Terry was one of the men hanging out in the park last week, though he said he wasn’t sleeping there. Terry was one of the Premier Circle guests who did not have a place to live when the shelter closed. The Blue Ridge Area Coalition for the Homeless paid for him to stay in the Royal Inn for about a month, while he continued looking for a place with his case manager.
But three months after Premier Circle closed, and weeks after he had to leave the Royal Inn, Terry still doesn’t have a place. Terry, who is in his 60s, said he landed on the streets because he was convicted of rape about 20 years ago and spent a few years in jail. He said that’s why he struggles to get a job and a place to live.
When he was at Premier Circle, he wasn’t spending his days in the park.
No matter how the city moves forward with its goal of creating a year-round shelter, PACEM and others will continue doing their work, because it will always be needed.
“There will always be homeless people,” said Saudah Mensah, the case manager for PACEM’s Secure Seniors program. Part of her job is helping her clients, many of whom don’t know how to use computers, use online rent and utility payment systems to pay their rent and other bills on time, so they don’t end up on the streets again.
“Drive around Charlottesville,” she said. You see it all the time. In the medians, downtown, at the parks. It’s there. And people will always fall into homelessness,” Mensah said. “I don’t feel like homelessness is something that can be completely fixed, ever. If it’s not the same people, it will be new people.”
But as a case manager, she can help.
“Even if I could make just a little bit of difference. Sometimes things are baby steps, and sometimes you can make big leaps. But if I can make a little bit of change in your life, then we did good.”
From parkway closure to farm loans, federal government shutdown would touch Southwest and Southside in multiple ways
With the countdown to a federal government shutdown underway amid largely stalled budget negotiations on Capitol Hill, Virginia is bracing for the disruptive impact that a prolonged lapse of the funding of many federal services would have on families and businesses in the commonwealth.
The federal Office of Management and Budget has already begun the process of advising agencies which employees it may have to furlough ahead of a looming deadline Saturday at midnight.
The government would cease many operations by 12:01 a.m. Sunday, unless congressional Republicans pass a government spending package that is signed by President Joe Biden before then — which is becoming increasingly unlikely.
The effects of what would be the 22nd shutdown in the past 50 years on national agencies and contractors in Virginia would be far-reaching.
For example, a shutdown could halt visitor services at Virginia’s National Park Service sites, and could result in the complete closure of NPS sites.
Virginia is home to 22 national parks, including the Blue Ridge Parkway, Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, Booker T. Washington National Monument, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park and Shenandoah National Park. Many small communities around Virginia have economies centered around park tourism.
There are more than 25,000 federal workers in Virginia’s 5th, 6th, and 9th congressional districts, who may be furloughed or expected to work throughout the shutdown but not receive payment until the government reopens, according to data from the Congressional Research Service.
During the 2018-2019 shutdown — which caused about 380,000 furloughs — Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, objected to the Senate going out of session, which resulted in him securing passage of legislation to guarantee back pay for federal employees for that and all future shutdowns.
But private federal contractors play by different rules. Government contractors and subcontractors are impacted by shutdowns because federal agencies are not able to award or modify government contracts, and companies with government contracts could be told to stop work from agencies that run out of funding for the year. This could result in federal contractors’ pay and benefits being delayed or suspended, or they could be furloughed.
Lynchburg-based BWX Technologies Inc., a federal contractor with about 2,000 employees in Virginia, as well as other contractors such as Entwistle Company in Danville, could be among those impacted by a shutdown.
“Like other contractors, we are closely monitoring the budget situation and consulting with our customers in terms of possible impacts,” BWXT spokesman Jud Simmons said in an email Friday, adding that the company has approximately 2,000 employees in Virginia, and thousands more around the country, working on programs for a variety of federal agencies.
“Given that federal appropriations negotiations are ongoing, it would be premature for us to comment or speculate on specific impacts at our facilities in Virginia or elsewhere,” Simmons said. “If there were to be an impact, we would keep our employees informed about the situation and would work with our customers to ensure that our facilities remained in a safe and secure status.”
Farmers in Southwest and Southside could also face challenges, because a shutdown would furlough about 50,000 employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which would affect the agency’s ability to help farmers access loans.
Ben Rowe, the national affairs coordinator with the Virginia Farm Bureau, said that the impact on farmers would be “significant” as they work to grow the food Virginia families rely on.
“Farmers would not be able to take out USDA loans, including mortgage and crop loans, which help farmers hedge their current crops and pay for expenses to grow next year’s crops,” Rowe said. “A shutdown would halt new signups for several conservation programs, and impact the publication of data that farmers rely on to buy and sell what they grow.”
The federal budget and the farm bill are both set to expire on Sept. 30, Rowe added.
“Unfortunately, delays in the federal appropriations process for FY 2024 and the risk of government shutdown threaten timely passage of the 2023 farm bill. We urge Congress to find a bipartisan path forward that avoids a government shutdown, addresses FY 2024 government funding, and moves to consider the farm bill without additional delay.”
The USDA’s ability to send out Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits could also be impacted, because the agency is only able to send out benefits for 30 days after a shutdown begins. SNAP provides food benefits to low-income families to supplement their grocery budget so they can afford the nutritious food essential to a healthy diet.
Grocery stores across the commonwealth also would be unable to renew Electronic Benefit Transfer card licenses during a shutdown – any store whose license expires during a shutdown would not be able to accept SNAP benefits. According to the Virginia Department of Social Services, over 178,000 Virginians in Southwest and Southside Virginia received SNAP benefits in August 2023.
Virginia’s two Democratic U.S. senators — Kaine and Sen. Mark Warner — warn of the potentially dire consequences for the commonwealth in the coming days, weeks or months.
“Government shutdowns inflict senseless pain on federal employees, government contractors, and millions of Americans who rely on government services, from food and air travel safety to assistance troubleshooting Medicare and Social Security issues,” the senators said in a joint email.
Southwest and Southside Virginia are no exception, Warner and Kaine said. “The closure of our beautiful parks — including Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway — during peak season, mandatory leaves of absence for federal workers and contractors, and fewer resources for farmers during harvest season are among the many ways a shutdown would hurt the region’s economy.”
And although Warner and Kaine have vowed to “continue to do everything we can to reach a bipartisan solution,” GOP hardliners in the House of Representatives demand a measure would cut spending to a 2022 level of $1.47 trillion on an annualized basis, impose immigration and border security restrictions, and establish a bipartisan commission to study the U.S. debt.
“The days of reckless, excessive spending without consequence are over,” Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County, said in an interview with MSNBC on Thursday.
Good, who is a member of the budget committee and of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he would not support a bipartisan measure proposed by the Senate that would fund the government until Nov. 17 as longer-term negotiations continue, while also providing $6 billion for Ukraine and $6 billion for U.S. disaster relief.
“The Senate plan is a plan to perpetuate the suffering of the American people,” Good said in the interview. “We’re on track this year for a $2.2 trillion deficit to further stick it to the American people, now that we’ve reached $33 trillion in national debt. We’re not going to perpetuate that harm in the House, we’re not going to vote for that terrible deal for the American people that simply extends the policies that are destroying the country and under which the American people are suffering.”
However, later on Thursday Good signaled in an email to Cardinal News that he was open to a temporary solution.
“While I am advocating for no longer than a 15-day temporary spending agreement, I would support a 30-day stopgap that cuts spending to pre-covid levels and includes real border security,” Good said.
He added that this was conditional on Speaker Kevin McCarthy “simultaneously leading the Republican conference towards passing all remaining appropriations bills with $64 billion in cuts from the so-called Fiscal Responsibility Act spending caps, during the stopgap period.”
McCarthy’s proposal, which would have kept the government open for 30 days and during that time period would have imposed drastic cuts to government programs, was defeated by a group of hard right Republicans in the House.
Cline did not respond to an email seeking comment, but Griffith said in an email that while he backed McCarthy’s proposal, he wouldn’t support the Senate measure. “The Senate proposal isn’t germane,” he said.
If the government does shut down Sunday, some core federal services, however, will not be impacted.
For example, the U.S. Postal Service does not cease operations during any federal lapse in appropriations, because it is funded through a permanent no-year appropriation, according to its 2024 fiscal year shutdown plan. And the about 500,000 Postal Service employees are exempt from furloughs because the Postal Service is self-funded.
And although some of the Social Security Administration’s employees would be furloughed, Social Security recipients will continue to receive payments because Congress has approved these programs to spend without an expiration date — which is known as mandatory spending.
Just a few of the agency’s services, such as the verification of benefits, or corrections and updates to earnings records, would be temporarily suspended.
New school meal rules give Henry County fighting chance against food insecurity
Virginia is bailing on a carbon cap-and-invest program. Activists say that might be illegal.
After a blazingly hot stretch of summer in early July 2022, the skies broke open over Buchanan County, Virginia. Floodwaters damaged almost 100 homes and destroyed miles of road in the rural, overwhelmingly low-income mountain towns that dot the region. In the wake of the devastation, local officials spent $387,000 compiling a flood preparedness plan. The multistep blueprint analyzed inundation risks and recommended potential risk-reduction projects.
To develop the proposal, the county tapped the Community Flood Preparedness Fund, a state program that makes hundreds of millions of dollars available for disaster risk analysis and mitigation. They were among the first to do so after money for such things became available in 2021 through proceeds from a carbon-offset program called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI. But those plans, and the fund, are now in doubt because Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin wants to withdraw from the initiative despite the fact it has provided $657 million for flood preparedness and energy-efficiency programs and reduced the state’s carbon emissions by almost 17 percent.
Critics of such a move say that, beyond curtailing the significant emissions reductions RGGI has already incurred, pulling out will reduce the funding available to help communities prepare for increasingly common extreme weather. It is, they say, a huge mistake and, what’s more, illegal. A group of four Southern environmental nonprofits, led by the Southern Environmental Law Center, filed suit on August 21 to stop it.
“Repealing this regulation is just outside of their authority,” said Nate Belforado, a senior attorney with the center. “If they disagree with it, they have to take it to the General Assembly, and they’ve tried to do that and it hasn’t been successful.”
RGGI, often pronounced “Reggie,” is a collaborative cap-and-invest effort that links 12 states stretching from Maine to Virginia. Power plants in those states must acquire one carbon-emission allowance for every ton of CO2 emitted, with the permissible level of emissions declining over time. Ninety percent of the allowances are sold through quarterly auctions, generating money states can invest as they choose. The program reportedly has slashed power plant emissions in participating states by half and raised nearly $6 billion.
Virginia joined the program two years ago, following the legislature’s 53-45 vote to require participation. Of the $657 million Old Dominion has raised, 45 percent has gone toward the Community Flood Preparedness Fund to help communities with resilience planning and municipal projects. (At least a quarter of the fund’s annual allocations go to low-income communities.) The remainder has financed home weatherization for low-income residents, reducing their utility bills through simple, but often expensive, home improvements.
But Youngkin says the rate increases utilities instituted to cover the costs of participation in the initiative create a financial burden for low-income Virginians. “RGGI remains a regressive tax which does not do anything to incentivize the reduction of emissions in Virginia,” his office told 13th News NOW. (The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.) “Virginians will see a lower energy bill in due time because we are withdrawing from RGGI through a regulatory process.”
The appointed Air Pollution Control Board, of which four of seven members were personally named by Youngkin, voted in June to withdraw from the program by repealing the Community Flood Preparedness Act that made Virginia a part of it in 2020. If the decision stands, the move would take effect December 30. Environmental groups said the proper procedure would have been to introduce a legislative bill and have lawmakers decide. One poll found that 66 percent of Virginians support staying in RGGI; to go against them, Youngkin’s critics argue, is a fundamentally anti-democratic move. A comment period for the withdrawal remains open until Wednesday.
Beyond that criticism, Benforado calls Youngkin’s move frustrating given the progress made under the initiative. “Virginia’s monopoly utilities are required to zero out their carbon by 2050,” he said. “RGGI is the tool that will help us get there.”
Municipalities all over Virginia have used the flood-resiliency funds to shore up infrastructure, draft evacuation plans, and restore blighted wetlands. “Local governments are on the front lines of the climate crisis,” said Mary-Carson Stiff, the executive director of the nonprofit Wetlands Water Watch, which worked with Buchanan County on its flood-resiliency plan. “And they are on their own, to come up with resources to come up with plans and to fund strategies to protect against losses.”
In a 2020 report, the organization noted that most of the state’s rural communities do not have any flooding or other climate resilience plans to speak of. Proponents of RGGI say that before Virginia joined, there was almost no money for disaster preparation and planning, which can be time- and labor-intensive, and requires hiring specialists and conducting environmental studies.
Stiff says Virginia’s use of funds raised through the initiative has been fairly forward-thinking. “We’re unique in the other participating RGGI states where our auction proceeds are being spent on grant programs that are actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.
Youngkin’s claim that Virginia ratepayers underwrite the cap-and-invest effort echoes an argument Dominion Energy, the state’s biggest utility, has made. It has said in public comments that the costs it had incurred under RGGI made it necessary to raise rates. It has proposed a rider of $2.29 on top of recent increases caused by fluctuating natural gas prices.
Mayor Justin Wilson of Alexandria, which has benefited from RGGI-funded flood-resiliency projects such as a redesigned downtown waterfront and storm drain expansion, says people were already paying dearly for the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, and that the Community Flood Preparedness Fund has been a godsend. Flooding costs Virginians $400 million per year, according to some estimates.
“I’ve stood in the homes of residents that have seen their livelihoods destroyed,” said Wilson. “The impacts of these storm events are a tax on the community.”
Youngkin has promised alternative sources of funding for flood preparedness and weatherization, and has proposed a $200 million revolving loan fund with a similar purpose. Wilson said he’ll believe there’s a contingency plan when he sees it. All the while, small floods that would have been unusual a couple of decades ago are happening with greater frequency, and the city struggles to keep up. “We have billions of dollars of investment we are gonna have to make,” the mayor said.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the state, Buchanan County’s flood-resilience planning may be complete, but officials must find money for the improvements it outlines. On the anniversary of last summer’s inundation, flood survivors were still fixing up their homes, mourning the woman who had died, wondering where the next resources for them were going to come from, and nervously looking at silt-filled and waste-dammed creeks as summer rain began to fall.
Danville becomes one of only two Southside localities to join health data tracking program
Cannabis manufacturer to open growing facility in Alleghany County
A national cannabis products manufacturer is preparing to open a new production facility in Alleghany County to help supply Virginia’s medical marijuana market.
Chicago-based Green Thumb Industries’ products include botanical cannabis — the basic flower form of cannabis — as well as cannabis-based items such as muscle rubs, tinctures and edibles. It already operates a manufacturing facility in Abingdon and RISE Dispensary medical marijuana locations in Abingdon, Bristol, Christiansburg, Danville, Lynchburg and Salem.
In Alleghany County, GTI is in the final stages of construction work at a recently purchased 300,000-square-foot building. The company declined to say how much it has invested in its new facility.
The company anticipates launching its manufacturing operation there “within the next month or so,” said Jack Page, GTI’s market leader in Virginia.
“It is a rather large building and we are technically only going to be occupying a portion of the building to start with,” Page said. “Market demand will really determine how much of the facility is actually used. This is in response to needing additional space outside of our Abingdon facility.”
The Alleghany site will be used to cultivate cannabis, with different rooms for growing, maturing and drying the plants, as well as places to store nutrients. Material will then be sent to the company’s Abingdon site to be processed into products.
The company plans to start with about 40 employees at the new site. They’ll work in a variety of jobs including “plant-touching roles” such as flower technicians, but also in custodial, maintenance and human resources roles, Page said.
Those jobs will provide attractive new opportunities for Alleghany County residents who might not have previously considered manufacturing employment, said John Hull, executive director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership, an economic development organization that helped connect GTI with resources related to workforce recruitment and training as the company considered the location.
“It’s a great career ladder type of opportunity as well,” Hull said. “For instance, young workers can take a role there, learn the manufacturing type of skills, be introduced to that type of environment and then be available for growth in that company but also other opportunities in the larger region.”
Green Thumb Industries has more than 4,000 employees across the company. The Alleghany site will be its 19th manufacturing facility, and it has more than 80 dispensaries across more than a dozen U.S. markets. It entered the Virginia market in 2021 with the purchase of Dharma Pharmaceuticals, of which Page was a co-founder.
In May, the publicly traded company reported a first-quarter net income of $9.1 million, or 4 cents per share, on $248.5 million in revenue. In an earnings news release, the company noted its revenue was up 2% year over year and said it holds a $185 million cash balance to invest in further expanding its business. It next reports quarterly earnings on Aug. 8.
While GTI has a national presence, all of the products made at the Alleghany facility will serve the Virginia market, Page said.
“Because of the way the federal government still views cannabis, nothing can cross state lines,” he said. “Anything sold in the Virginia medical program is grown and processed and fully sourced in Virginia. And nothing that is made in Virginia is going out of state to another facility.”
Despite state legislation passed in 2021 that allows adults in Virginia to possess small amounts of marijuana for personal recreational use, as well as grow up to four marijuana plants at their own homes, there currently is no licensing or regulatory framework to allow retail sales in the commonwealth.
That means medical dispensaries remain the legal way for Virginians to purchase marijuana, Page said. Qualifying medical patients need a certification from a doctor, physician assistant or nurse practitioner, plus a valid government ID, to buy cannabis at a medical dispensary.
“The RISE Dispensaries and our counterparts in other parts of the state are the safe way for Virginians to access cannabis,” Page said. “Absent the retail market, there are some dispensaries out there that are providing access to cannabis but not necessarily in a safe manner. That’s an important distinction that I think needs to be made.”
GTI is regulated by the state Board of Pharmacy and, beginning Jan. 1, the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority. The company’s facilities are inspected for compliance with procedures such as those related to inventory and record-keeping, and third-party labs check for the presence of pesticides and heavy metals in products, Page said.
GTI’s location in the Alleghany Regional Commerce Center — a business park between the city of Covington and the town of Clifton Forge, just off Interstate 64 — makes it a good location for distributing products statewide, said Alleghany County Administrator Reid Walters.
If the federal government were to legalize marijuana, GTI would also be well-positioned to ship products into the Midwest, Walters said.
“Legalization is something that’s going to create jobs in Alleghany County and put food on people’s table, and they’re well-paying jobs,” Walters said.
Page said the possibilities for business expansion — whether that’s due to higher demand in Virginia’s medical market or due to potential legalization of recreational sales — “definitely factored into the decision to purchase the Alleghany facility.”
Still, the path to increased legalization, both at the state and federal level, remains unclear.
President Joe Biden last year pardoned all federal offenders convicted of simple marijuana possession and urged state governors to do the same. He also instructed federal officials to review how marijuana is classified under federal law.
In Virginia, a member of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration said earlier this month the governor is “not interested in any further moves towards legalization of adult recreational use marijuana,” according to The (Charlottesville) Daily Progress.
Nonetheless, Green Thumb Industries is looking ahead to the debut of its Alleghany County facility, which, along with the launch of its newest RISE Dispensary in late June in Danville, will further boost the company’s ability to supply the commonwealth with medical cannabis.
Hull, of the Roanoke Regional Partnership, called the new facility a “truly exciting” opportunity for the Alleghany Highlands.
“It further diversifies their industrial base, and combine that with the career-building opportunities there for young workers in the area, we think that it truly is an impactful opportunity,” he said.
Lynching victim John Henry James receives ‘one little drop of justice’ 125 years after his death
Wednesday afternoon, Melvin Grady got what he called a “very personal” birthday present.
July 12 is Grady’s birthday. It is also the anniversary of John Henry James’ death.
In 1898, James was lynched by an angry mob of white men because he was accused of assaulting Julia Hotopp, a young white woman from a prominent local family. After he was dead, a grand jury indicted him for the assault.
One hundred and twenty five years later, Albemarle County Circuit Court Judge Cheryl V. Higgins on Wednesday dismissed that indictment.
Higgins ruled that the grand jury not only improperly issued the indictment, it did so intentionally, making “a mockery of the judicial system.” The indictment was used “not as an instrument of justice, but as cause to lynch a man simply because he was Black,” Higgins said. “It was used corruptly, to sanction the lynching of John Henry James.”
“This is one little drop of justice,” said Grady, standing outside the Albemarle County Circuit Court minutes after the dismissal, a warm and steady breeze wicking tears from his cheeks.
Grady wore a purple t-shirt with an image of a memorial to James across his chest. Five years ago, Grady participated in a pilgrimage to collect soil from the site of James’ lynching and bring it to the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, where a glass jar of that soil is part of a memorial to victims of racial terror lynchings.
A lynching is the unlawful killing of a person, usually by hanging, by a mob. According to a report from the Equal Justice Initiative, attacks of lynching have overwhelmingly targeted Black people. Lynching was not considered a federal hate crime until last year.
The pilgrimage was emotional, Grady said. But the gravity of what that mob did to James, and what the United States justice system failed to do, hit Grady — who, like James, is Black — while he sat in the courtroom listening to the Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Hingeley present the motion to dismiss the indictment.
“Knowing and traveling, I was fine. But here, it really hit me. I’m going back to imagine a guy who didn’t do shit — pardon my language — getting lynched, no evidence whatsoever,” Grady said. “I’m telling you, it’s powerful. I cried in there, hearing the testimony, the ruling. It was powerful. I feel honored to be a part of this.”
John Henry James’ story is an important part of local history, but it wasn’t really told until a few years ago, said Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor of religion at the University of Virginia and director of the Memory Project at UVA’s Karsh Institute for Democracy.
Even now, the story isn’t widely known, though historians, lawyers, and community members think it should be. It’s a difficult story to tell, in part because it is horrific and violent, and in part because the historical record offers inconsistent, and in some cases unreliable, reports and accounts.
James was accused of assaulting 20-year-old Julia Hotopp, a young white woman from a wealthy local family. Her father, William Hotopp, was the founder and owner of Monticello Wine Company — at the time the largest winemaking company in the country.
According to the account, the assault took place between 9 and 10 in the morning, at the gate of Pen Park, not far from the Hotopp residence. Julia Hotopp had ridden her horse into Charlottesville earlier that morning to get the horse new horseshoes. When she returned home, the gate to the park was wired shut instead of fastened by its usual latch, and since there were no farmhands around, she dismounted to open the gate herself. Before she could remount, someone struck her from behind, grabbed her by the neck and forced her to the ground, where Hotopp said she became unconscious.
The Progress reported that Hotopp’s horse arrived back at the house without its rider, which alarmed Hotopp’s brother, who ran toward the gate and met his sister along the way. When the siblings met, Hotopp “swooned again.” Once back at the house, Hotopp “described her assailant as a very black man, heavy-set, slight mustache, wore dark clothes, and his toes were sticking out of his shoes.”
Hotopp then became unconscious for a third time “and was still in that condition, attended by several physicians, at last accounts,” the Progress wrote.
News traveled around the city quickly. People starting searching for the assailant and by noon, “a negro named John Henry James was arrested in Dudley’s barroom,” the Progress reported.
James “somewhat” met Hotopp’s description of her assailant, the Progress said. He was brought to jail “to await further developments.” Though, after James was arrested, people continued searching for possible suspects. “The country is being scoured by white and black men, and if the fellow is caught, and can be identified, we fear the worst,” the report ended.
That same report said that Hotopp “resisted the fellow to the extent of scratching his neck so violently as to leave particles of flesh under her fingernails and so effective was the resistance that he failed of accomplishing his foul purpose.”
Hotopp’s resistance, and her description of her assailant, was never referenced again.
By the next issue of the Progress, 24 hours later, James was dead, lynched by a mob before he could appear in court.
According to the Progress, a large crowd followed James to the jail upon his arrest, already threatening to kill him. As a result, authorities thought it would be best to “remove the prisoner to Staunton for safety,” and did so with some secrecy, the night of July 11. When people found out about this, they were “outraged,” the Progress reported.
That night, Albemarle County Court Judge John M. White issued a summons for a grand jury to meet at 10 a.m. the next day, on the morning of July 12. White did this “realizing that prompt and efficient means would have to be resorted to to calm the excited populace,” the Progress wrote.
Two hours before the jury met, at 8 a.m., James, Charlottesville Chief of Police Frank P. Farish, and Albemarle County Sheriff Lucien Watts boarded a train in Staunton bound for Charlottesville. “He [James] didn’t seem to give the officers any trouble, and when they boarded the train this morning, for Charlottesville, it was not considered necessary to handcuff him,” according to the Progress.
Reports show it was clear to everyone — including James — what was about to happen.
“Several Staunton gentlemen who felt sure there would be a lynching got on the train and went to see it,” The Staunton Record said.
James did not make it to Charlottesville. A mob of about 150 unmasked white men waited for James’ train at Wood’s Crossing in Albemarle County, just four miles outside of the city — a usual stop for the train.
A group of about 40 Black men who’d heard about the plan ran to help James, but they were “outnumbered and forced to retreat,” according to the historical marker now standing near the Albemarle County Courthouse.
As reported in the Progress, when the train stopped, members of the mob boarded, resisting Farish and Watt’s attempts to keep them out of the car. They then restrained the lawmen (who later claimed they could not see and therefore could not identify the men who bound them from behind). The mob dragged James off the train, threw a rope around his neck, and led him to a locust tree about 40 yards away, near the blacksmith shop.
“He was asked if he wished time to pray,” the Progress reported. “Before God, I am innocent,” James reportedly said.
Then they hung him. The account is detailed by the Progress and re-published in other papers:
“The rope was thrown over a limb about three inches in circumference and that miserable wretch was drawn up. The limb jutted out from the tree at a sharp incline, so that the rope slid downwards toward the body of the tree, and when at rest the man’s body was almost touching the body of the tree. Under the tree was a bench, and his feet were only a few inches above it. As soon as he was elevated the crowd emptied their pistols into his body, probably forty shots entering it.”
The whole thing took just a few minutes.
James’ train had already left. Another passenger train passed the crossing as the mob lynched James, “forced witnesses of a lynching,” the Progress wrote.
The only person mentioned by name in any of the reports, other than the law enforcement officials and James, is Carl Hotopp, Julia Hotopp’s brother. The Progress reported that he “arrived about ten minutes after the hanging and emptied his pistol into the body.”
James’ body hung dead from the tree for a couple of hours, and in that time, hundreds of people visited the scene, “many of them gathered relics of the occasion, taking some portion of his clothing, etc,” the Progress wrote.
“When the mob dispersed they came away in any direction that suited them, some coming on to the city, others returning to their homes, all with a perfect indifference to any future investigation,” ended the Progress’ report.
The coroner’s jury issued its report the following day, saying James died either from the hanging or being shot, and that he “came to his death by the hands of persons unknown to the jury.”
J.H. Barcus, a Black man who worked for the coroner, removed James’ body from the tree and prepared him for burial. “I found thirty bullet holes in the body,” Barcus later said in the coroner’s inquisition.
James’ body was likely still hanging from the locust tree when the grand jury indicted him for Hotopp’s assault.
The jury heard of James’ death while in session. But they stated that they had reviewed the evidence and felt they had probable cause to issue an indictment on the charge of criminal assault upon Julia Hotopp.
It’s possible James wouldn’t have appeared before the jury, even if he had made it to the courthouse. The jury was sworn in when James was still on the train from Staunton, one hour before he was due to arrive. Micajah Woods, the commonwealth’s attorney at the time, “thought it unnecessary to introduce any other witnesses than the young lady and her sister, and the jury retired to their room to make their investigation,” according to the July 12 report in the Progress. (Woods served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.)
Some reports make it seem like the officers wanted the law to take its course, that they didn’t tell the crowd who James was, that they pleaded with the mob to stop, to let the court decide whether James was guilty of assaulting Hotopp. Other reports, like one from the Waynesboro Herald, said that the rope was around James’ neck “in less than two seconds,” suggesting that the chief of police and the sheriff didn’t fight as hard as they said they did.
The conflicting reports don’t stop there. Though the Progress said that Hotopp could, and did, identify her assailant (as James), the Staunton Record’s report, as re-printed in the Progress, said otherwise:
“The information gleaned from the officers while they were in Staunton was to the effect that the lady had not recognized the prisoner as her assailant when he was brought before her, and that there was considerable doubt that he was the man,” the Record wrote.
Yet another paper, the Staunton News, said James admitted to the assault before the mob hung him, something other papers directly contradict. The Record also said that as the mob took over the train, “Woods [the commonwealth’s attorney] had said there would be no difficulty whatsoever to convict, as the evidence was conclusive.” Woods was not there, so it’s unclear how that message would have been relayed.
“This being so, the crowd thought there was no reason for the delay and they decided to lynch the prisoner,” the Record wrote. “The fact that there is no doubt of his guilt makes the people of Charlottesville heartily approve the lynching, as in this way the innocent is spared the terrible ordeal of being a prosecuting witness.”
In the days following James’ execution, the Progress published various letters to the editor that supported that very sentiment. One, taken from the Alexandria Gazette, said, “A negro was lynched near Charlottesville yesterday for the brutal crime of which such punishment is the prescriptive penalty in the South, and will continue to be, law or no law. The white men of Virginia will not, and never will, allow the negro outragers of their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters the chance of escaping the law’s delays and quibbles, or subject their unfortunate victims to the mortification of a public trial.”
Letters published stating that James deserved a trial and scolding citizens for taking the law into their own hands were met with letters stating that it would be worse for Hotopp and other white women like her to have to re-tell their account to a jury, than for an accused Black man to be lynched.
Some papers asked questions. In its July 21, 1898 edition, the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator questioned why James’ law enforcement escorts “took the local train instead of the fast train to Charlottesville,” and why it “was not considered a material question before the coroner.”
The Richmond Planet, a weekly African American paper, covered James’ killing extensively in its July 16 edition. On its front page, it re-printed the Progress’ July 12 account almost word-for-word, with some small but significant changes.
The Progress used the headline, “He Paid the Awful Penalty: John Henry James Hanged by a Mob Today.” The Planet’s was, “They Lynched Him. A Colored Man Dealt With — Taken From Train. Died Protesting Innocence. A Brutal Murder — Mob Makes No Effort at Disguise.”
The Planetused the word “man” or “colored man” to refer to James, whereas the Progress had used “negro” or “the wretch.” It also had completely different titles for the different parts of the story. For instance, the Progress titled the section about the grand jury at Albemarle County Courthouse “A True Bill.” The Planet called it, “The Farce at Charlottesville.”
The Planet also omitted the Progress’ description of James, that he sold ice cream, was not a resident of Charlottesville but instead a “tramp” and that he had no family in the area.
The Planetcondemned the lynching and blamed the authorities for James’ death. “The story of the brutal murder is revolting. We believe that the authorities were blamable. They knew that it was risky to bring this man unprotected to Charlottesville. James died protesting his innocence to the last. We do not believe that any effort will be made to punish the murderers. They boldly perpetrated the crime and virtually defied the commonwealth. There was no effort made to conceal their identity. The guilt or the innocence of James do not enter in the question,” The Planet wrote in an article titled “Another Virginia Lynching.”
The Planet didn’t stop its critique there. It also published “A Slight Comparison,” pointing out differences in how white and Black individuals are treated by the law.
A white mob lynched James, a Black man, for allegedly assaulting a white woman. Whereas “a white man who brutally assaulted a 12-year-old colored girl near Amelia C.H., Va., was given a brief time in the Virginia penitentiary, and during last month, upon the representations of his friends was pardoned.” Another white man who was found guilty of assaulting a child was “adjudged a lunatic” and sent to an asylum.
“If we are going into the hanging business, let us do it squarely and fairly,” the paper wrote.
James’ death by lynch mob was not unique, nor was it uncommon during this time. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented more than 4,400 racial terror lynchings in the United States during the time between Reconstruction (roughly 1863) and World War II (which ended in 1945).
And it wasn’t a secret. In its July 16, 1898 issue, the Planet published an article called, “The Reign of Lawlessness: Judge Lynch’s Bloody Work.” It listed the names of some of the people who were lynched, their race (mostly “colored,” but a few white), their charge (some have “none”), across the South from Jan. 5, 1897 to July 13, 1898, about a year and a half. “Total 202,” it reads.
This period was a turning point in Virginia history, Schmidt, the UVA professor and historian, said during Wednesday’s court proceedings, in which she presented evidence from the historical record, including many of the newspaper articles mentioned in this story.
The mob that killed John Henry James, the officers that allowed (or possibly incited) the mob to kill James, and the grand jury that issued a posthumous indictment of James, all violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, said Schmidt.
The Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868 as one of the “Reconstruction Amendments” after the Civil War, grants equal legal and civil rights to African Americans, including those who had been enslaved. “Nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Virginia was readmitted to the Union in 1870, after it had ratified the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and adopted a new state constitution that received support from both Black and white citizens.
But by the time James was killed in 1898, white Virginians were tired of that constitution and the rights it afforded Black citizens, and pushed for another. They succeeded when, in 1902, Virginia adopted a new state constitution and began the rule of Jim Crow law — which legalized and enforced racial segregation — until 1970.
Writing in the Richmond Planet the week that James was killed, Planet Editor John Mitchell Jr. wrote that “the lynching of John Henry James will be far more damaging to the community than it will be to the alleged criminal. His troubles are o’er; those of the community have just begun.”
“We in this courtroom are that damaged community,” Schmidt said in her testimony Wednesday. More than 100 members of that community had filled both the courtroom and the upstairs jury room, together asking for “a modicum of justice” in the dismissal of the indictment brought against James.
The indictment is “a symbol of racial injustice,” said Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Hingeley, who brought forth the motion to dismiss it.
Hingeley was inspired to do so after visiting the National Memorial for Peace and Justice — colloquially known as the lynching museum — at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, in April.
It’s the same memorial depicted on math teacher Melvin Grady’s t-shirt.
One of the monuments in the memorial represents Albemarle County, and John Henry James is the only name on it.
Hingeley returned home wondering what he could do. He thought of the indictment against James that remained on the record.
The indictment is “a symbol of racial injustice,” Hingeley said. In court, he argued that it was invalid because it was issued after James’ death, and knowingly so — the grand jury was aware that James was dead before it issued the document. (A dead person cannot be charged with a crime.)
Hingeley also argued that Commonwealth’s Attorney Woods did not have enough evidence to seek an indictment against James, anyway. If James had indeed matched the description Julia Hotopp gave of her assailant, if his neck had been covered in deep fingernail scratches from Hotopp’s resistance, that would have been documented in the historical record along with all of the other details present, such as the circumference of the branch (“about three inches”) from which the mob hung James’ body.
And, with conflicting reports of whether James confessed or maintained his innocence, there was “a great conflict as to what crime may or may not have been committed,” Hingeley said. One report said Hotopp fended him off. Another quoted Woods as calling it “the horrible crime of rape.”
“The evidence is what this prosecutor did not have,” Hingeley said.
At the end of his arguments, Hingeley made a few observations. One is that the court made no effort to bring the mob to justice. An official inquiry determined the crime was committed “by persons unknown.”
“And yet none of them masked,” Hingeley said.
Another is that the justice system was complicit in the lynching, “and the work the community was then engaged in, which was the work of white supremacy.”
When Judge Higgins dismissed the indictment — in a courtroom not far from the very spot where the grand jury chose to issue it — people broke out into quiet applause. Some wept, some hugged.
“Just one of many,” said a woman in the courtroom.
Outside, Don Gathers, a faith leader and activist, said he was having “mixed emotions.”
He was glad that James had received “some level of retribution and justice,” but was “sad that we even have to be here for this. This is just a very small pebble in a large pond. We can’t lose sight of the fact that, while we won this particular battle, the fight continues. This was a physical lynching, but the torment that is placed on Blacks, Black males, throughout history can’t be ignored.”
DeTeasa Brown Gathers held her husband’s hand as she said “rest in peace, John Henry James. And rest in peace to all that have been systemically lynched for the past 125 years, being wrongfully accused, being treated like this.”
They stood not far from a marker, placed outside the courthouse in 2019, commemorating James’ death, installed in partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Memory Project.
Schmidt touched on a similar point. She said that the ruling is a reminder of the “evergreen” importance of the Fourteenth Amendment. “It’s never too late to right a wrong,” she said, and “this is a particularly egregious case from 125 years ago that’s still relevant today.”
There are still disparities in legal treatment of white people versus people of color, particularly Black people. For instance, Black people represent about 13% of the U.S. population, but account for 27% of arrests, according to a 2021 report by The Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center. “Police are also more likely to use force and excessive force against people of color during police contact,” the report stated. Additionally, Black people are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people, the report said. At the end of 2019, Black Americans were incarcerated at five times the rate of white Americans.
“It’s a symbol of racial injustice,” Hingeley said of the indictment, and removing it from the record “is a small step.”
“We’re never going to be able to bring to justice the people who committed the lynching, or to restore John Henry James’ life that was so terribly taken from him,” he continued. “I don’t want to exaggerate and say that we’ve made a big step. But it’s a good step, and an important step. I hope that out of that will grow a sense of commitment and dedication to continuing the work of achieving racial justice here, because we have work to do.”