Opening of the Roanoke Community Center near social housing

It takes a little imagination to imagine what the Roanoke EnVision Center will look like.

Jasey Roberts, public relations, marketing and social media manager for the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority, walked through the old Melrose Library on Salem Turnpike, which is being renovated into a community center that will provide a range of public services . He nodded to new offices and indicated where computers, counseling space and other services will soon be available.

“We’re waiting for chairs and desks,” he said, leading a brief tour past tools, shop vacs, electrical parts, stepladders and other signs of building work that were taking hold. space formerly occupied by shelves of library books, magazines and newspapers.

“Our community partners will be here,” he said, pointing to a row of office doors. “There’s the Virginia Western [Community College] room, there is the Carilion clinic. This is the computer lab…we will have a color printer. No wifi yet.

None of that is there yet. Soon, however, the housing authority, with the help of several agencies and community partners, will offer more than 6,700 square feet of services ranging from help with financial planning to university tuition to healthcare, most of the services being aimed at helping the Roanokers to live. in poverty.

The Roanoke Housing Authority opens the doors to the EnVision Center on Friday, the culmination of a three-year project that began when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development selected Roanoke as one of the first 18 sites of the country for its EnVision program.

Developed during the tenure of then HUD Secretary Ben Carson, the EnVision programs focus on four “pillars” of economic empowerment, educational advancement, health and wellness, and character and personality. leadership. Programs are offered in centralized centers to provide accessible resources for people, especially low-income people, to improve their lives. (https://www.hud.gov/envisioncenters)

Just over 20% of Roanoke’s population lives in poverty, according to the United States Census Bureau, which is about twice the state’s poverty rate. The percentage of Roanokers under age 65 who do not have health insurance is 13.2, also double the national rate of uninsured people.

Roanoke was chosen as the EnVision site in late 2019, partly because of those high poverty numbers, but also because the housing authority’s pre-existing focus on those four pillars of empowering people, according to dispatches of the time.

Even then, the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority intended to convert the old library property, which was closed when a new Melrose branch library opened a block away in the summer of 2019. The city of Roanoke agreed to sell the 3-acre property and its circa 1976 brick building to the authority for $10 in the fall of 2020. The pandemic delayed renovations, which cost the housing authority approximately $1. $25 million; and the building will not be fully ready to host all of the EnVision programs for a few weeks.

Located across the Salem Turnpike from the Housing Authority headquarters and Lansdowne Park, the city’s largest public housing complex, the EnVision Center will eventually be convenient for hundreds of potential visitors who have difficulty accessing services. community due to transportation, cost or other issues.

“This is an opportunity to break down barriers,” said Greg Goodman, director of community support services for the housing authority. “We bring the resources to the people. We’ll eliminate transportation hassles, provide childcare… We can break down barriers and help people achieve their career goals and improve.

Virginia Western will be one of the main collaborators of the housing authority on the new site. The community college will operate a satellite program inside the building, which will include career counseling, financial aid, job training and other courses. The satellite programs are the first in Virginia to be physically located on public housing, according to the college.

Milan Hayward (left to right), Vice President of Career and Business Training School at Virginia Western Community College, and Greg Goodman, Director of Community Support Services for the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority, listen to Jasey Roberts , RRHA’s public relations, marketing and social media manager, describes the computer lab that will be part of the EnVision center in the old Melrose branch library in Roanoke. Photo of Ralph Berrier Jr.

Providing easy access was one of the main reasons for joining the EnVision Center, said Milan Hayward, Virginia Western’s vice president for professional and corporate training.

“Virginia Western’s prerogative is community engagement,” Hayward said. “We want the college to be more accessible to residents of Lansdowne in particular, and Northwest Roanoke in general.”

Hayward said the college will offer a variety of courses at the center, which could include everything from math and English to workforce training in data analytics, information technology, for pharmacy technicians and other fields. He said Virginia Western already teaches precision machining classes at a nearby facility on Melrose Avenue, which could eventually include machining classes at the EnVision Center. Those classes could start in a few weeks, he said.

The college also plans to hold an information session Nov. 16 at 5:30 p.m. on the Community College Access Program (commonly referred to as “C-Cap”) which offers free tuition to qualified students in the Roanoke Valley. Virginia Western’s Frank Tyree, whose title is Roanoke City CCAP Success Coach, will be at the center every Wednesday from 3 to 6 p.m. during the school year.

Virginia Western has made efforts in recent years to make college easier for low-income Roanokers and people who live in public housing and don’t have personal transportation. The college offers free bus passes on Valley Metro, Roanoke Valley’s public bus system, but this has not always made it easy to get to the college’s Colonial Avenue campus. Bus schedules, long commutes, and long waits at bus stops were often incompatible with one’s academic schedule.

“Bus passes are great, but they don’t reduce travel time or waiting for the bus,” Hayward said. “Now we can offer people in the Lansdowne community the chance to walk to counseling opportunities, financial support, training and education. It’s the next level of accessibility.

As Roberts said, “It’s a unique resource. »

Hayward was among the small group that took a brief tour of the center earlier this week. The building’s interior, once an open space lined with books, retains some features of its 1970s modern architecture past, including original woodwork and an unnumbered old clock built into a wall near where was the reception. Upgrades include a row of offices, a large community meeting room, and classroom spaces. G & H Contracting, Inc. of Salem led the renovation of the project.

The Housing Authority has offered EnVision services since the program’s inception three years ago, but the old library offers significantly more space than the previous two locations. The program was originally housed in the Villages at Lincoln complex before moving to the Seat of Authority.

“To be blunt, we just didn’t have the space,” Goodman said. “Then it hit us. The Melrose Branch Library “has moved to a beautiful new location. So we could turn this once popular space into something people can be proud of.

The EnVision Center will be open in its new building weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Although services are tailored to help low-income individuals and families, the center is open to the public. Other partners include Family Service of Roanoke Valley, which will provide mental health services and counseling, and the Roanoke Financial Empowerment Center, which will provide financial counseling.

The Harvest Collective, a Roanoke-based cooperative that promotes sustainable farming practices and composting, has partnered with Virginia Cooperative Extension to create a community garden on center property. Local children and volunteers planted arugula and other fall crops in the garden along Salem Turnpike. New landscaping touches including maples and red button trees have grown around the building.

By bringing resources closer to low-income people who need them, Goodman said he believes more people will receive job training, financial advice, health care and education to become independent enough to leave the complexes. social housing such as Lansdowne.

Goodman hopes that one day there will be no need for people working in public housing.

“We want to get out of a job,” he said.

Jill E. Washington