Charlottesville had — and lost — a shelter that social workers say could have helped hundreds of unhoused people off the streets

A man in a striped shirt sits at a bench with cans and bottles of water in front of him. A small cooler is next to the bench. Another man sits on a camp chair at the end of the bench, with tents lined behind him.

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.

The front of a motel-like building, with wood panels and support structures holding up the crumbling awning, A cooler and chair are among peoples belongings that sit in from the doors.
Premier Circle sheltered more than 100 people in the two years it was open. By the time it closed in June 2023, PACEM had found housing for 91 of its guests. Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow

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

A woman in a yellow t-shirt talks on the phone in a parking lot, in front of a one-story motel, with a truck parked in front.
Liz Nyberg, shelter operations manager for PACEM, paces on the phone in front of Premier Circle. The shelter for homeless people closed in June 2023, but the organization helped 91 people into housing over two years. Credit: Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow

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

A man hoists a piece of furniture out of a white truck while another man (back to camera) pushes forward a chair. A woman in a blue jumpsuit stands between, helping.
PACEM women’s case manager Heather Kellams (center) helps a shelter guest move into his new apartment. Credit: Erin O’Hare/Charlottesville Tomorrow

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

Two people sit on a sofa with many pop culture posters and pictures on the wall behind them. They are looking at each other, smiling.
Lydia Wolfe and Justin Cave were, at first, denied a spot at Premier Circle. But once they got a spot, it helped them find housing — and now they say more people should have that chance. “Something has to be done,” Wolfe said. Credit: Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow

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

Two people push a cart and bicycle to the edge of a parking lot where a chain link fence opens up to the street.
PACEM staff Liz Nyberg, director of shelter operations (left) and Jessica Eubanks, a shelter monitor, help close up Premier Circle in June 2023. While they 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. Once PACEM’s staff knew the shelter would be closing, they stopped taking guests and focused on housing everyone who remained. That last evening, staff helped a few guests move their things into the Royal Inn hotel across the street. Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow Credit: Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow

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.

After about a year, the hotel would be demolished to make way for low-income apartment-style housing. That’s still the plan, though it’s taking longer than expected.

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

A hall with mats, cots and folding chairs, with people's belongings and backpacks.
For two weeks in February, Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church lent its social hall as an overnight congregate shelter for people experiencing homelessness. The organization that runs the shelter, People And Congregations Engaged in Ministry (PACEM), relies on local churches and other community centers to help provide shelter during the cold winter months. Every two weeks, the shelter moves to a new location in town. Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow Credit: Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow

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.”

Increasing funding for homeless services could draw more unhoused people to the city,  according to a 2017 report from the Center for Poverty & Inequality Research at the University of California, Davis. Igor Popov, at the time a recent graduate of Stanford University’s economics PhD program, conducted the study.

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.

A styrofoam food takeout container sits on the ground outside a tent. The letters "I GOT AHDD" are written on the top in black marker.
One of the men staying in Market Street Park said he put this styrofoam takeout container outside of his tent to let people know why people are living there. “You want to know why we’re here? We all have AHDD: Acute Housing Deficiency Disorder.” Credit: Ézé Amos/Charlottesville Tomorrow

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.”

Jessie Higgins contributed to this report.

The post Charlottesville had — and lost — a shelter that social workers say could have helped hundreds of unhoused people off the streets appeared first on Charlottesville Tomorrow.

What mobile clinics in Dollar General parking lots say about health care in rural America

Deploying mobile clinics to fill care gaps in underserved areas isn’t a new idea. But pairing them with Dollar General’s ubiquitous small-town presence has been heralded by investment analysts and some rural health experts as a way to ease the health care drought in rural America.

What mobile clinics in Dollar General parking lots say about health care in rural America is a story from Carolina Public Press, an award-winning independent newsroom. Our breakthrough journalism shines a light on the critical overlooked and under-reported issues facing North Carolina’s 10.4 million residents. Please consider making a contribution to support our journalism.

A rural family is doing what has to be done, one gig job at a time

Over the last couple of decades, Jamie and Aura Moore have cobbled together a living for their family of six, doing everything from lobster fishing, chimney sweeping and photography, to restaurant work, midwifery and carpentry.

They even nibbled for awhile at a bunny food business.

The philosophy of life for this couple is a little like Jamie’s approach to his primary occupation of carpentry.

“It’s a whole different way of thinking,” said Jamie Moore, who also writes poetry. “It’s all about following the laws of the wood, working with it, and being able to keep stuff from falling apart on you.” 

The family’s six-acre Machias homestead, perched along a brook that meanders into Little Kennebec Bay, is rife with symbolism that captures their tenacious way of life; from the rutted, winding road leading to their modest farmhouse, stretched over the years with salvaged lumber, to the home’s overflowing pantries of canned foods preserved from bountiful gardens.

The couple, Jamie now 52 years old and Aura 44, bought the home about a decade ago with $48,000 in cash, saved over the years by renovating and leapfrogging from house to house, doing all of the work themselves.

Jamie said he knew nothing about construction when they bought and renovated their first house. The only tool he had was an axe left by the previous owners.

It hasn’t gotten much easier.

“After we closed on this house, we had six dollars left in our bank account. We said, ‘OK kids, let’s go to Dunkin Donuts and celebrate — each of us gets a donut!’” Jamie laughed. Aura quickly corrected him, remembering they could only afford donut holes. 

Jamie Moore operates an electric saw while cutting wood.
Jamie Moore building his daughter’s home from salvaged wood. Courtesy photo.

Their precipitous tenacity is not a new story Downeast. For many, it is the story. 

Washington County, with a poverty rate hovering just below 20 percent, consistently falls within the three poorest counties in the state.

With a population of 31,437, according to the U.S. Census Data for 2022, less than a quarter of residents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Roughly half of the working-age population is even counted in the civilian (non-public-sector) labor force.  

About a third of those workers are classified, like the Moores, as self-employed — the so-called “gig economy” — based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

These dogged statistics exist despite the region’s rich abundance of natural resources, including lobster and other fisheries, lumber, and wild blueberries, industries that would presume a wealth of good-paying traditional employment opportunities.  

The problem is these seemingly good-paying jobs come and go with the seasons.

“You have to be creative to come up with something to be able to survive,” said Jamie Moore.  “Usually you’ve got to have two or three things going on. You have to be willing to do whatever you have to do.”

To make ends meet, Jamie and Aura — who also homeschool their children, are renovating their house, and building another house for their oldest daughter, Praise, and her husband — have to scrimp and work a variety of jobs.

Jamie builds custom furniture, does construction and sweeps chimneys. Aura pitches in with her professional photography, and by growing and canning nearly all the family’s food, including meat and fish. 

The kids also pitch in, with sons Seamus and Sean helping with salvage and building projects. For about five years, 18-year-old daughter Gracie ran a successful rabbit food business, doing everything from the foraging to the package design, that also helped keep the family afloat. 

According the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, only 37 percent of Washington County’s two-adult, two-children households (the most commonly used benchmark) are making the approximately $96,000 annual living wage the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Living Wage Calculator estimates is needed in Washington County to afford basic necessities, such as food, child care, health insurance, housing and transportation.

Despite assiduous efforts, the Moore household’s income, with three children still living at home, falls far short of even the lower benchmark living wage.

A dozen jars of canned fish line a shelf inside the home of Jamie and Aura Moore.
Canned fish on a shelf in the Moores’ home. Photo by Joyce Kryszak.

It’s an economic reality recognized by many community leaders, including the Sunrise County Economic Council. The nonprofit organization works with municipalities, businesses and other nonprofits to create jobs and bolster prosperity in the county.  

During a SCEC web presentation in March giving an update on the county’s economy, the group’s executive director, Charles Rudelitch, said native Downeasters tend to perceive the ebb and flow of seasonal employment as natural.

But he said it’s not, adding it’s a real challenge for small businesses to make a profit and for individuals to make a living wage when demand for goods and services varies so much during the year.  

Despite the region’s economic challenges, Rudelitch said the personal income reported by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for Washington County in 2021 was a surprising $1.5 billion.  

“It’s easy in Washington County to focus on how the county performs poorly relative to other parts of Maine and New England, but there’s an awful lot of economic activity here,” Rudelitch said during the presentation. “It’s important to remember just how important self-employment is in the county.”

The SCEC recently opened its MaineStreet Business Building in Machias, hoping to foster the region’s entrepreneurial spirit.

The center provides small businesses with low rent, digitally connected office spaces, and professional support and training. A partnership with Washington County Community College offers two free online successive credit-bearing courses, covering the fundamentals of running a business.  

Katie Bragg, the director of small business and entrepreneurship for the SCEC, said there’s already great interest from people who want to grow a hobby into a sustainable business. But the training also provides a reality check.

“Sometimes people are told if you do something that you’re passionate about, it will be wonderful all the time and that’s not the case, it’s not always fun,” Bragg said. 

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Another focus for the SCEC is building a broader economic foundation for the county.

The organization supports larger existing and emerging industries, such as the $110 million Kingfish land-based aquaculture facility being built on Chandler Bay in Jonesport. Given the green light after several permit challenges, the company is projected to create 70 year-round, living-wage jobs and 100 temporary construction jobs.

The frame of a new home.
An under construction home being built for the Moores’ daughter. Courtesy photo.

That could be a boon for people looking for a full-time career, and for gig construction workers like Jamie Moore, who is always hunting for work close to home.

Over the last couple of years, Moore has spent weeks and often months away, traveling as far as New Hampshire to take remodeling and construction jobs.

He admits it’s hard for the family to be separated, and the high cost of gas, as well as the wear and tear on their two vehicles (a 2003 Honda CRV and a 2012 Subaru Forester) eats into his earnings.

But for Moore — who spent about eight years making what he called decent money as a lobster fisherman and another three dragging for scallops in Maine’s icy waters — it’s worth the trade-off.   

“It was really hard being out there, sticking your hands in the dead fish, it would just turn my stomach so bad,” Jamie said. “I just kept telling myself I gotta go back, I gotta go back. I’ve just got to do it.”

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Eventually the money he was able to earn as a furniture and cabinet maker lured him from the water and those heftier, at least seasonally, steady paychecks.

These days Jamie concentrates on the larger construction jobs because he can make more money. He said trying to make a living building custom furniture isn’t a viable career Downeast, where so many others are also scraping to get by. 

“I just didn’t have the heart,” he said. “People wanted a table, and I was like, I want them to have a table! So I would charge them what they could afford.”

That sense of fairness is a core principle for Jamie and Aura, who place their faith in God and their commitment to the Golden Rule at the center of all they do.

A brown table constructed by Jamie Moore sits in his workshop.
A 14-foot hand-hewn table built by Jamie Moore. Courtesy photo.

For the Moores, sometimes donating or bartering work and volunteering their time have to be factored into their personal “living wage” formula. For example, Aura spent three weeks in Uganda four years ago, volunteering her professional photography skills at a nonprofit birthing center.  

Not only did her photography help generate donations for the center that provides critical maternity services in the impoverished country, but the experience also motivated Aura to come home and begin a new kind of journey.

She decided to earn a Bachelor of Science degree as a certified midwife, and for the last four years has traveled back and forth to Bangor for classes and for her preceptorship, requiring participation in more than 50 births.  

She graduated this month, welcomed home by a massive wood sign her husband erected in their field by the road that was hand-painted by her artistic children with flowers and the words “Congratulations Mama.” 

Although her new profession will bring in some much-needed additional income, the couple knows the family likely still will be scraping by, having to do most things themselves, do with less or simply do without. 

They’ll still have to leave the county for work too, at least for a while. For the next two years, Aura will live with a family in Bangor every other week to begin her midwife career at a birthing center; Washington County doesn’t have a stand-alone birthing facility.

But it still won’t be a steady income. As a certified, experienced midwife with a four-year degree, Aura will be paid only hourly for prenatal visits and a set fee for each birth. Still, neither she nor Jamie regret their occupational choices.

“We’ve always had times of abundance and times when it’s been pinched,” Aura said. “But we have been very blessed and we’re both just doing what we love.”

Jamie agreed, adding that making a living sort of on the fly — one gig, one piece of furniture, one birth at a time — isn’t for everyone. 

“I don’t want to in any way make it look like it’s easy for us,” he said. “None of it is perfectly organized and on schedule. But it gets done.”

The story A rural family is doing what has to be done, one gig job at a time appeared first on The Maine Monitor.

A chunk of Grand Teton Park could go up for auction. Price tag: $62M

UPDATE: This story was updated at 8:25 p.m. on Oct. 2 to include remarks from Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper). —Ed.

The state of Wyoming has taken a key step toward unloading its last remaining 640 acres locked within the borders of Grand Teton National Park. The land, in the heart of Jackson Hole, could be sold at auction.

Progress toward the sale of the so-called Kelly Parcel came late Monday, when the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments announced it was initiating a land disposal in conjunction with releasing a detailed analysis of the square-mile property.

“This is one of the very first steps in the process, and there certainly is a long way to go,” Wyoming Office of State Lands Deputy Director Jason Crowder told WyoFile. “It definitely has consideration by the [State Board of Land Commissioners] still in front of it.”

The Kelly Parcel is located along the eastern edge of Grand Teton Park, though it also shares boundaries with the Bridger-Teton National Forest and National Elk Refuge.

The Kelly Parcel, center, is bordered on three sides by Grand Teton National Park. Its east border is shared with the Bridger-Teton National Forest, and there’s also a sliver of land touching the National Elk Refuge. (Teton County GIS)

The State Board of Land Commissioners — the governor, secretary of state, treasurer, superintendent of public instruction and the auditor — are scheduled to review the issue at its Dec. 7 meeting. If the board approves of the proposed sale, it’ll direct the Office of State Lands to proceed with putting the pricy acreage surrounded by federal land to auction.

“Any sale of state lands, by constitution, has to be sold at public auction,” Crowder said, “unless we do an exchange or unless the Legislature gives the board authorization to do a direct sale.”

The Wyoming Legislature has enabled direct sale of state land to the U.S. Interior Department — the National Park Service’s government parent — twice in the past. In 2016, a $46 million sale was completed for 640 acres in the Antelope Flats. In 2012, the state sold off an 86-acre tract near the Snake River.

Negotiations between the Interior Department and Wyoming about state-owned land in Grand Teton began in 1949, the year before the park was enlarged.

All that remains is the Kelly Parcel.

The 640 acres has an estimated value of $62.4 million, according to the OSLI analysis. Past appraisals, in 2010 and 2016, put the value at $45 million, then $39 million. The tract is bisected by Gros Ventre Road, but its development potential is inhibited by a scenic easement lining the road.

There are no statutes currently on the books enabling a direct sale of the Kelly Parcel to the Interior Department, Crowder said.

But lawmakers have attempted to facilitate the sale in the past. As recently as 2021, former Rep. Andy Schwartz (D-Jackson) ran a bill that would have authorized a direct sale, though it fell apart after Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) successfully passed an amendment that set the floor price at $3.2 billion — around 82 times the appraised value at the time.

Sota the pudelpointer traverses a snowy ridge in the Bridger-Teton National Forest immediately east of the state’s inholding in Grand Teton National Park, a tract known as the Kelly parcel. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

The Wyoming Legislature has also unsuccessfully tried to wring more money out of the parcel. In 2019, a bill died that would have allowed for economic development on the tract — even a casino.

Securing permission for a direct sale could be difficult during the Legislature’s upcoming budget session, at least judging by one lawmaker’s reaction.

“Why would Gov. Gordon bargain sale for our most priceless 640 acres of state School Trust lands to the Biden Administration?” Harshman, a former two-time House speaker, told WyoFile in a text. “Wyoming people will be shocked.”

It’s unclear if Grand Teton National Park and its nonprofit partners have secured $62 million in the instance that the Legislature approves a direct sale to the Interior Department.

WyoFile was unable to reach Teton Park officials before this story was published.

Any major development, either an auction or direct sale, will not occur until 2024 at the earliest, Crowder said.

“We’re required to advertise it for four consecutive weeks before we go to a public auction, if [the board] approves us to move in that direction,” he said.

The post A chunk of Grand Teton Park could go up for auction. Price tag: $62M appeared first on WyoFile.

Want a degree without classes and lectures? California community colleges test a new approach

A revolution is in the making at California’s community colleges: No more grades, no more sitting through lectures or seminars, no more deadlines. In a pilot program taking shape across eight of the state’s community colleges, the only requirement for some associate degrees will be “competency.”

Students who can prove that they have the relevant skills can earn that degree.

In theory, this model, known as “competency-based education,” could provide students with more flexibility and the potential to attain degrees faster in key job sectors. The pilot is geared toward working adults, many of whom left community colleges at record rates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the state’s population of K-12 students continues to shrink, leaving colleges with fewer students right out of high school, the pilot aims to attract adults who are already in the workforce by “valuing their lived and work experience,” said Madera Community College President Ángel Reyna.

If successful, these community colleges will set themselves apart from every other two-year institution in the country. The pilot, which launched in 2021, provides eight California community colleges with up to $515,000 over the course of four years to each design a single associate degree program using this new model.

The goal is for students to be able to enroll at some point in the 2024-25 academic year, said Aisha Lowe, an executive vice chancellor at the California Community College Chancellor’s Office. In practice, colleges must overcome bureaucratic and logistical hurdles to make the new system work. At least one community college says it is struggling to hit the state’s deadline.

The challenge is to create something that works “but isn’t so different that colleges can still wrap their heads around it and engage,” Lowe said. “It’s definitely unprecedented.”

A new way to measure learning 

The new model restructures the requirements of a degree to reflect what students have learned, rather than the amount of time they spend in class.

Currently, all college degrees require a certain number of hours spent in a classroom, either  in-person or virtually. An associate degree, which California’s community colleges offer, requires roughly 3,000 hours spent in a classroom or on homework in a traditional academic year. That’s why some refer to it as a “two-year degree.”

Teachers get paid in part based on the number of hours they teach. Because of the high number of part-time students, the state funds colleges and universities based largely on the number of hours that a student spends in class, not the number of students themselves.

In this current system, students may be required to sit through classes to get college credit even if they can demonstrate they already have some of the requisite skills. Students who may have less time for school because of work or family obligations lose out too, said Charla Long, the president of the Competency-Based Education Network, a consultant for California’s pilot program.

“We’ve created an inequitable system because it’s so time bound,” she said.

In the new system, students seeking an associate degree in early childhood education at Shasta College in Redding will take 60 different exams, each one testing a specific skill, said Buffy Tanner, the college’s director of innovation and special projects. Students in the program will have materials to teach themselves, teachers will be available to answer questions and counselors will be able to provide wraparound support.

Currently, a student is required to take 20 semester-long classes for that same degree. Students in the new program will be able to take an exam up to three times and can move as quickly or as slowly as they want, Tanner said. In-state students in the new program who do not qualify for financial aid will pay the same total tuition, just shy of $2,800 for an associate degree, not including the cost of books, classroom supplies, or other miscellaneous fees. Shasta College, like the other colleges in the pilot, is still trying to figure out how much to pay faculty in the new system.

Not every student can succeed in this self-paced format. Tanner said the plan is to vet students for the program through questions about their lives and study habits: “Do you need external deadlines? What kind of self-discipline do you have?”

“We have to make sure students fully understand what they’re getting into,” she said.

A growing phenomenon

Such alternative education systems have existed for decades. Since the 1970s, some colleges and universities have experimented with new models of teaching and learning that offer more flexibility and try to evaluate students based on what they know, not on how much time they spent in class, Long said.

In 1997, a group of 19 governors from Western states agreed to develop a private, nonprofit institution, known as Western Governors University, to provide “competency-based” education. With roughly 150,000 students today, it’s the largest higher education institution in the country. Though headquartered in Utah, the university is entirely online and boasts students from all 50 states.

Other large for-profit and non-profit university systems have experimented with the same model, including Capella University, an online college, and Southern New Hampshire University. California followed. In 2018, at the behest of former Gov. Jerry Brown, the state created a new community college, known as Calbright, which is free, entirely online, and exclusively “competency-based.”

“This is radically different, and an incredibly powerful way to support our students,”  Calbright’s blog says about its model.

2020 survey of nearly 500 colleges and universities across the country found that 13%  were already offering at least one degree or certificate through competency-based education and roughly half of those surveyed were in the process of adopting one, though the report noted that there’s “considerable variation” about how they define the model.

Homework after 10 p.m. makes progress slow

For Calbright student Jeremy Cox, the appeal was less about the instructional method and more about the convenience of online education. He started taking online classes in 2016 through for-profit companies such as Udemy and Coursera.

Jeremy Cox at Seal Beach on Aug. 28, 2023. Julie A Hotz for CalMatters
Jeremy Cox at Seal Beach on Aug. 28, 2023. Julie A Hotz for CalMatters

“To be able to just pull out a phone and bust out a couple of lessons from Udemy or Coursera, that’s very helpful,” he said.

One day while at a park near Long Beach with his children, Cox ran into a woman who told him about Calbright College. While Udemy and Coursera do not focus on a particular instructional method, Cox said his experience at Calbright College has been pretty similar, with two key differences. Unlike Udemy or Coursera, he said, Calbright provides teachers who are more available and respond quickly to questions via Slack, a messaging app. The other difference is social interaction. He has become involved in building community among his classmates and serves as the college’s first student body president.

Calbright has had consistent enrollment growth each academic year since it began, despite a scathing report from the state auditor’s office. State legislators have repeatedly tried to defund the school, pointing to poor academic outcomes.

Even though the college advertises that students can finish certificate programs in less than a year, CalMatters found that fewer than 10% of Calbright students actually do. The data only runs through the spring of 2022, and Calbright was unable to provide updated figures.

Cox said he had intended to complete an IT certification at Calbright in three to six months with a goal of one day getting a job that involves user design, artificial intelligence or blockchain. Now, he expects it to take about a year and a half.

“My study time is when the kids go to bed. I only have after 10 p.m.,” he said. “And then with student body responsibilities, my time is split between the two. Half of it is with the student body and half is my studies.”

Creating an ‘unprecedented’ new system

With this new pilot, these eight community colleges in California aim to go one step further than Calbright College, using a similar concept but creating new curricula and setting up new systems to provide even more flexibility for students. Calbright is not in the pilot, but Lowe said the college has provided advice, such as strategies to support students outside the classroom.

By the 2024-25 school year, these eight colleges plan to change part of their state funding formula, faculty pay, and financial aid regulations. They’re also adapting the licenses that allow them to operate, a process known as accreditation. These are changes that take years of work and include getting approval from district boards, state officials and federal agencies. Adapting financial aid policies is particularly cumbersome, but Long, president of the Competency-Based Education Network, said if the eight colleges can succeed, they’ll be the first two-year institutions in the country to do it.

If the state’s community colleges can’t adapt to the competency-model of no lectures or grades, other schools will beat them to it, said Lowe, an executive vice chancellor with the community college system. She pointed to “for-profits” as the primary competitor.

At Shasta College, Tanner said the pilot program offered an opportunity to train students as the state ramps up its plans to offer free transitional kindergarten, which is a year of school offered to any 4-year old before kindergarten. California will need as many as 15,600 new early childhood educators by 2025-26 to teach transitional kindergarten.

State law sets requirements for transitional kindergarten teachers, such as taking 24 units of early education college classes or having comparable professional experience. For those who already have some background in early childhood education, but not enough to meet the requirements, the new course model could allow them to “quickly demonstrate that they know their stuff,” Tanner said.

Unions, faculty leaders voice concern

The success of the pilot depends on the support of the faculty.

“Take a look at teacher load, teacher contracts — that’s all connected to time in the classroom, lecture hours. This whole framework is going to have to break or change and nobody really knows how to go about doing that,” said Elizabeth Waterbury, a music instructor and the faculty association president at Shasta College.

While she supports the idea, she’s concerned about what the new system could do to faculty pay.

“I’m afraid we may be the ones who could make it more difficult for California to transition to competency-based education,” she said.

Tanner and her colleagues haven’t yet tried to sell the faculty union on the pilot. Instead, they plan to ask faculty involved in the pilot program to track their time so that the college first understands the workload.

Last fall, faculty leaders from the Madera Community College Academic Senate expressed concerns about the ways this new model might impact their pay  and intellectual property, college president Reyna said. The development of the new program has been on “pause” ever since, he said.

A Madera Community College banner hanging over the main walkway on campus on Aug. 28, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
A Madera Community College banner hanging over the main walkway on campus on Aug. 28, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

On Aug. 25, the Madera Community College Academic Senate issued a resolution saying it was “deeply concerned” about the direction of the pilot program and asked the college to “reconsider” participating. However, the former president of the academic senate, Brad Millar, already signed off on the formation of the program on March 7, 2021, when the college submitted its application to join the pilot.

But in its resolution, the academic senate said anyone who signed the application on behalf of the group never sought approval from its members. When the members of the academic senate did discuss the program on Nov. 18, 2022, it “failed to garner support,” according to the resolution.

“In concept, there are many benefits,” Bill Turini, president of the Madera Community College Academic Senate, told CalMatters. One potential concern is that the model could lead to less qualified teachers in some instances, he said. He said the program is “still an abstraction” but pointed to other, simpler changes that he said yield similar results, such as more online instruction and flexible start dates.

Madera Community College is the newest community college in the state, officially recognized in 2020. It is part of a large district that includes Fresno City College, Clovis Community College, and Reedley College. None of the other schools in the district are participating in the pilot.

“Any policy that we want to change at Madera Community College to accommodate competency-based education, it impacts the three other colleges,” Reyna said.

East Los Angeles College is the only college participating in the pilot among a nine-college district. It’s the largest community college district in the nation. It’s been slow to implement some of the changes required by the pilot program, but success there could make it easier for other colleges in the district to follow.

“When you talk to faculty who’ve been here longer than 10 years and their picture of an East Los Angeles College student, they envision a 20-year-old student taking 15 units (full-time) at the Monterey Park campus. We’ve now grown to an older student population,” said Leticia Barajas, a faculty member and president of the college’s academic senate. “This is about institutional transformative change.”

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association’s Reporting Fellowship program. Adam Echelman covers California’s community colleges in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on higher education.

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    This story was produced as part of the NEW (Northeast Wisconsin) News Lab, a consortium of six news outlets covering northeastern Wisconsin.

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    Shannon Pikka loves the work-life balance of her job in construction. She left an office job in insurance and now enjoys being up early and working with her hands as part of a drywall finishing crew. The single mother’s workday ends around 3 p.m. — just in time to greet her two children from school.

    “Kids are coming home at that time, and we got the whole evening now together,” Pikka said. “Our job should not dictate our lifestyle.”

    Despite changing careers nearly four years ago, she’s still earning apprentice wages due to setbacks during the pandemic when her youngest was in third grade and schools switched to distance learning. 

    “I would be a journeywoman right now had I had a babysitting option so I could have still shown up for work and gained all those hours in the year — so that set me back,” the De Pere, Wisconsin resident said. 

    The difference is a full $9 an hour. As it is, she’s making just shy of $27 an hour. But with two school-aged kids in her household, paying all of the bills is a stretch. Pikka gets no child support, and she relies on her parents who live nearby to provide child care for the days she needs to be at a remote jobsite for days or even weeks at a time.

    “I’m just trying to make ends meet,” she said. 

    But government statistics show many in the community earn a lot less than she does. 

    The state Department of Workforce Development estimates that two adults working full-time earning $25.54 an hour each is just enough to be self-sufficient in a household with two children when factoring in the cost of housing, transportation, food and child care. 

    The average wage in Green Bay, according to the most recent federal Bureau of Labor Statistics report, was $26.29 in 2022. But the median earnings were $21.84 an hour, meaning that half of workers earn less than that.

    In other words, many workers supporting families in northeast Wisconsin are just squeaking by, especially at a time when the cost of living is increasing in Wisconsin and across the nation. 

    “Self-sufficiency is attainable for the majority of full-time workers if children are not involved,” wrote DWD spokesperson Jennifer Sereno. “However, the situation rapidly changes when just one child is brought into the picture, let alone multiple.”

    That’s because the cost of child care can rival tuition at a state university, the Wisconsin Policy Forum wrote in a recent report. A state survey of child-care facilities found the annual median cost for school-aged children starts at around $10,000 but can be as much as $40,000 a year for high-quality infant care in urban areas like Green Bay and Oshkosh. 

    Earnings too high to qualify for benefits

    Pikka’s household has no second income, yet she is still well above the level to qualify for many public assistance programs.

    Her story represents a growing segment of Wisconsin’s working population: those earning too much to qualify for most public assistance programs but too little to afford anything but basic necessities. United Way studies this group of people known as ALICE: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. Its latest report shows 23% of Wisconsinites fit into this category.

    Shannon Pikka is a single mother and a union drywall finisher. Like many in northeast Wisconsin, she dreams of owning a home but does not make enough money to buy. She hopes a promotion to journey status will allow her to become a homeowner. She is seen on a job site on June 2, 2023, in Ashwaubenon, Wis. (Sarah Kloepping / USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

    Help such as food assistance through the state’s FoodShare program, subsidized child care under the Wisconsin Shares program care and BadgerCare Plus health insurance are not available to many such families, including Pikka’s. 

    “These are people who are working,” said Trisha Witt, who works in advocacy for United Way Fox Cities in Appleton. “They’re earning more than the federal poverty level but less than Wisconsin’s basic cost of living.”

    When you add in the 11% of people living below the poverty line, the percentage of Wisconsinites struggling financially is 34%, according to the United Way report.

    In northeast Wisconsin, the figures are similar, except in urban areas, where the numbers are starker. In Oshkosh, for example 41% of residents are either below poverty or not making enough for basic needs. 

    Barriers to prosperity

    It’s not due to a lack of employment. Official unemployment is at record lows with federal agencies reporting Wisconsin at a record 2.4% in April. Northeast Wisconsin was hovering at 2% or less. 

    But while very few able-bodied adults are outside of the workforce, lack of affordable child care and transportation can keep people from working and meeting their basic needs. 

    “No matter what the economic conditions are like,” said Ryan Long, a regional economist for the state Department of Workforce Development in Green Bay, “we know for certain that there are going to be folks who face barriers to work.”

    On paper, Pikka has been relatively successful. For 15 years she sold insurance but entered the trades after becoming disillusioned with a desk job. But a string of abusive partners who ended up incarcerated or moving out of state has left her the sole breadwinner for her family.

    Her life had been full of hardship from when she was left at a hospital in Colombia where she was born and never picked up. Pikka spent the next three years in an overcrowded South American orphanage where she said she suffered physical abuse.

    “I have scars on my body because the nuns could not control the orphanage, so they beat us up,” she said. 

    At age 4, a pair of school teachers adopted her and raised her in northeast Wisconsin. If it wasn’t for her parents helping with child care, Pikka said she could never maintain her higher paying career in construction.

    “I wouldn’t be able to do it,” she said. “I’d have to go back to my office job.” 

    The dearth of affordable child care in Wisconsin is well-documented. The staff shortage in day care centers itself has a ripple effect. On paper, there are roughly 37,500 slots for children in the 19 counties in northeast Wisconsin. But a survey last year of 1,173 child care centers in Wisconsin found nearly half were below capacity. 

    “It is important to note that this is licensed capacity and providers may not be using all slots due to staffing shortages, low enrollment, or other factors,” wrote Gina Paige, a spokesperson for the state Department of Children and Families, which licenses day care facilities.

    Hot housing market constrained by supply, rising interest rates

    Affordable housing is another key to family sustainability. But a shortage of supply has driven up rental prices across the board.

    “It doesn’t really matter what the availability of jobs is like if young folks are getting priced out of certain areas because housing is too expensive,” Long said.

    Real estate data show that housing prices across the state continue to rise even as sales slump due to constrained supply and rising interest rates that have added to the cost of borrowing.

    In April 2023, the median house in northeast Wisconsin cost $260,000. That’s $23,000 less than the statewide median. But the median cost rose 7% across the region in the previous year, similar to the increase statewide. 

    Rental housing is out of reach for many residents of northeast Wisconsin, according to U.S. Census figures analyzed by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. This for rent sign is outside a duplex in 2020 in De Pere, Wis. (Sarah Kloepping / USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

    All this happened while real estate transactions slumped after interest rates spiked from historic lows at below 3% to around 6.6% for a fixed 30-year loan in May. 

    The numbers are stark: There were more than 1,500 residential home sales in June 2022, just as the Fed hiked interest rates for a third time in response to inflation fears. Ten months later in April of this year, the region saw half as many closed deals at 777.

    Property owners who are locked in with relatively low interest rates are less likely to list their homes now because they’d pay higher rates on their next property, said real estate broker Kevin Jones, co-owner of Adashun Jones in Fond du Lac.

    “There are more people pursuing the few properties that are on the market,” he said.

    Houses harder to find, more expensive to rent

    The region has already faced supply constraints as Baby Boomers live longer and stay put, leaving fewer properties for younger aspiring homeowners.

    “We have healthy Baby Boomers — I’m one of them — who are staying in their homes longer, and millennials who are clamoring to find homes and are at a disadvantage because they increasingly have to rely on borrowed money,” Marquette University economics professor David Clark said at a recent economics forum.

    He said many millennials of child-bearing age — those born in the 1980s and ‘90s — “kind of got dealt a bad hand” coming out of the Great Recession with a weak labor market and so “logically and rationally stayed out of the market” during the time when working Americans would tend purchase first homes.

    Jones, the real estate broker and Fox Valley landlord, said the rental housing market is also hot with rents increasing by 10% to 20% annually. 

    “I think it’s because a lot of the rentals have been consolidated into a small group of investors — that’s one side of the story,” he said. “And the other side is there’s just not enough homes and developments that are being created.”

    In 2022, the National Low Income Housing Coalition — an advocacy group — listed the fair market price for a two-bedroom unit in northeast Wisconsin at between $757 in rural counties to $889 in the Oshkosh area . The study, citing U.S. Census figures, also found the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in counties across northeast Wisconsin — for that matter, across the entire state — is higher than the recommended 30% of the average income renters in those counties make. 

    Home ownership remains elusive for Pikka. For three years, she has rented a two-bedroom apartment for $875 in De Pere where she enjoys living despite the higher housing prices compared to neighboring Green Bay. Once she works enough hours for journeyman wages, she said she’ll try to buy something.

    But Pikka, who is 41, said that’s at least three years away. In the meantime she is pursuing another dream. Pikka would like to visit Colombia with her kids to reconnect with her birth parents.

    This story is part of the NEW (Northeast Wisconsin) News Lab’s series, Families Matter, covering issues important to families in the region. The lab is a local news collaboration in northeast Wisconsin made up of six news organizations: the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Appleton Post-Crescent, FoxValley365, The Press Times, Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Watch. The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s Journalism Department is an educational partner. Microsoft is providing financial support to the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation and Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region to fund the initiative. The mission of the lab is to “collaborate to identify and fill information gaps to help residents explore ways to improve their communities and lives — and strengthen democracy.”

    Rising cost of living in northeast Wisconsin has many working families treading water  is a post from Wisconsin Watch, a non-profit investigative news site covering Wisconsin since 2009. Please consider making a contribution to support our journalism.