In February of 2020, the Lynchburg Area, led by Miriam’s House, became the 12th community in the United States to reach functional zero for veteran homelessness. Lynchburg is one of more than 80 cities and counties in the U.S. that are part of Built for Zero, a national initiative committed to measurably ending homelessness, one population at a time.
Lynchburg achieved this milestone, known as functional zero, by creating a system that can identify veterans experiencing homelessness, by name and in real-time. Two prominent local officials, Lynchburg Mayor MaryJane Dolan and Vice-Mayor Beau Wright, lent their support to this effort and were featured in a video on the History Channel, supported by Rocket Mortgage. We spoke with Vice-Mayor Wright about his role. why ending veteran homelessness is an important local issue, and how other local lawmakers can make a difference.
The original interview was edited for clarity and length.
What inspired you to run for public office?
Lynchburg is a city that is growing and is one of the few in Virginia that is expanding. We have quite a few significant institutions that contribute resources to the community, with intellectual power and drive. There is so much opportunity.
I also thought it was important that a young person serve. Given that this council will be making decisions that are going to be impacting the health of our community for 30, 40, 50 years, when I still hope to be living here, we should have someone from my demographic at the table.
What struck you about the homeless response in your community?
What was impressive to me is how thoughtful and sophisticated the strategies are for addressing homelessness. But also the intersectionality of it and how it requires so many different partners at the table to tackle it. And like any public policy challenge, while numerically our homelessness challenge isn’t on the scale of other communities, it requires an immense amount of dedication and patience to actually make change. It also takes really talented individuals. I think that’s what jumped out at me most during these conversations: that this is not only a big deal — which we already knew — but that we have a stellar team doing really thoughtful work to solve it.
When Lynchburg community partners reached functional zero for veteran homelessness, what did that mean to you? As a community member and as an elected official?
Lynchburg’s downtown is situated on a bluff overlooking the James River. One of the signature elements of our tiered structure on this bluff is Monument Terrace, which is a set of over 100 steps that go between Church Street and Court Street. Monument Terrace is dedicated to people from Lynchburg who have served in and, in many cases, died in our country’s wars. The terrace is a living reminder of our city’s sacrifice and our community’s enduring commitment to our veterans.
I feel honored to be serving on the council when this happened and to be at Monument Terrace for the announcement that we had hit functional zero. You couldn’t have asked for a more meaningful location. As was said at the announcement: caring for our veterans means, at the very least, making sure that they have a roof over their head and a place to call home.
During this unprecedented moment, with the current economic forces, pandemic, and eviction crises, what is the role that local elected officials can play to help maintain this success?
We need to send a clear signal that this is a priority. We are the political representatives of this community, and we need to commit publicly to homelessness as an issue that the community cares about. And one that we are willing to get behind by actively resourcing solutions and supporting our community partners.
So, first is making it a policy priority. And second is drawing those connections and making funding streams and resources available. There are a lot of issues in front of the community, especially right now. And there are a lot of unknowns — the medium to long term consequences of COVID or the recession, for example. Nor do we know what our resource streams will look like in the coming months and years. But I’m hopeful, and I believe the majority of my colleagues feel the same way I do — that homelessness is something we need to be focused on and commit to working with community partners to resolve — and when it comes to functional zero for our veterans, to sustain.
There are other communities working toward functional zero. What advice would you give to local elected officials who want to solve this problem in their community?
Our role is to provide the kind of political support that the folks doing this hard work need. Oftentimes, they are asking for a runway to get their initiative off the ground — resources, both funding and brainpower; community connections; and vocal support. That’s where we can help. I would also urge them to trust the process and make investing in the community partners doing the work a priority.
Any last thoughts?
This is such a big win. It’s a bright spot in what is otherwise a challenging time. Lynchburg is not unique in achieving this, and that’s a good thing — I hope we aren’t the last.
Beau Wright is the Vice-Mayor of the city of Lynchburg, VA. He grew up in Lynchburg and is a third-generation resident. He was elected to the City Council in May 2018 and will serve a four-year term from July 1, 2018 – June 30, 2022. On July 1, 2020, Beau was elected by the City Council to serve as Vice-Mayor for a term of July 1, 2020 – June 30, 2022.