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While waiting for a city shelter, homeless advocates fill the gap in Suffolk

Kianna Boone of STAR Haven in a home she places residents in to get back on their feet. (Photo by Laura Philion)
Kianna Boone of STAR Haven in a home she places residents in to get back on their feet. (Photo by Laura Philion)

Ronald Harvey lives in a house contracted by STAR Haven, a Suffolk nonprofit. He was homeless before going through rehab and getting connected with the group.

Harvey said getting a place to stay was the springboard he needed to start getting an education.

“Being involved with … recovery programs and other things like computer classes helped me along the way," he said. "But most important thing is, they gave me a roof over my head."

Harvey now hopes to train to be a substance abuse counselor.

Homelessness reached a new high in 2023, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Virginia’s homelessness rate increased as well.

In growing communities like Suffolk, that situation is exacerbated. Between 2021 and 2022, homelessness grew in Suffolk by 40%, according to the Southeastern Virginia Homeless Coalition. But there is still no city shelter — though the city did house people in hotels briefly during the pandemic.

Kianna Boone helps fill that gap. Some days, she remodels homes. Others, she acts like a life coach. Still others, she delivers furniture and appliances. It all depends on what her clients need.

Boone runs STAR Haven, combating homelessness in Western Tidewater. Her group and others -– Beacon of Hope and ForKids in particular — address what the city can’t.

Boone said though the process starts with housing, it doesn’t end there. They route clients to resources for career building, mental health services and education.

“Housing first doesn’t mean housing only,” Boone said.

Suffolk doesn’t have a homeless shelter, though the city is converting a motel off Pruden Boulevard into one. Deputy City Manager Kevin Hughes told WHRO the plan was formulated after HUD gave the city $1.4 million during the height of the pandemic. 

“Folks look at us for enhanced quality of life," Hughes said at the time. "And that's something that I think that as a local government we're up for, and we want to provide."

The city’s currently demolishing the former hotel rooms. Hughes said the current goal is to be open this coming winter.

In the meantime, STAR Haven and Beacon of Hope, the area’s wintertime shelter, are the first lines of defense. Family-focused nonprofit ForKids operated a shelter in Suffolk, which closed in 2012 when the group moved to a hotel-based housing model. Boone and STAR Haven focus on single adults.

STAR Haven was founded in 2019 as a group giving food out once a month before it expanded to providing housing. Boone said the donations she gets go right back to clients and the homes she furnishes for them.

“If we have calls (that) say, 'Hey, I need a stroller,' we got a stroller," Boone said. "If someone says, 'Hey, we need a table set or refrigerator,' ... it goes back to them."

The goal is: "see a need, meet a need.”

The world changes fast.

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