City staff are exploring authorizing a "tent city," a move that would make the Beach the first community in the state to sanction a homeless encampment - if the City Council approves the idea.
Mayor Will Sessoms, however, said he doesn't support it.
"I just don't see it happening," Sessoms said. "I could not recommend it because I do not want to encourage homelessness. I want to work to keep people from being homeless."
Andrew Friedman, director of the city's Housing and Neighborhood Preservation Department, said officials are looking into how such an encampment would be operated, including issues involving policing, sanitation and the duration of its existence.
Any camp would have to meet city requirements for campgrounds and health and safety, Friedman said. Any proposal would ultimately go before the City Council for land use approval.
There are at least a dozen known encampments around the city and they keep popping up. Anyone can wind up out there in the current economy, said William Duncan, a local advocate for the homeless.
City staff members think an authorized encampment could make it easier for the city to keep tabs on the homeless and provide services to them.
In March, however, the city shut an encampment on Loretta Lane in Seatack that had more than 20 people living in it, tacking eviction notices to trees after the property owner sanctioned the evictions. Last month, a woman died in a small encampment off Loretta Lane.
A January count found 453 homeless people in Virginia Beach, down from 517 the previous year. Officials plan on conducting a summer count Aug. 12-14.
Friedman said his department will talk to city officials about the implications of the camps before seeking proposals from churches and organizations for a sanctioned encampment. With no formal proposal yet, it's just an idea and no specific sites are under consideration.
One local nonprofit group, Hope in the Upper Room, is considering submitting a proposal.
Duncan, who's known by only his last name in the homeless community, is the leader of Hope. The nonprofit hosts a weekly support session for homeless individuals, many of whom live in encampments. Group members volunteer and pick up trash around the city.
"We're very interested in it and would volunteer for it," Duncan said. "Anything that they can incorporate, we'll be behind it."
Residents have mixed feelings about the idea of sanctioning encampments.
E. George Minns, president of the Seatack Community Civic League, has been raising concerns about homeless encampments in and around his neighborhood. He said he would support a sanctioned encampment, but also thinks the homeless need more permanent options.
"This would be a more humane approach... Just creating an official encampment is good but not really going to deal with the problem," Minns said. "If you move people out of the woods and into homes, then we are dealing with the problem."
Tom Musumeci, chairman of the Seabridge Square Civic League, said his community has had homeless people since the 1990s and he would like to see more solid options for them.
"I think it's an idea worth exploring, but I'm cautiously optimistic because there are a lot of policy issues that will have to be looked at," he said.
Efforts to legalize encampments have gone on in other cities such as Portland, Ore., Seattle and St. Petersburg, Fla.
Sharon Chamard, associate professor at the Justice Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage, has written a manual on homeless encampments. She said they are more common in the Pacific Northwest because it's a more liberal area of the country.
Homeowners often object. "Most communities are resistant to this," she said. "Many people see it as supporting an illegitimate lifestyle."
Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless said more of the encampments are popping up in the nation because people are losing homes and jobs.
"Until we solve the housing and poverty crisis, unfortunately, there will be people living outside, and it would only make sense for some homeless who'd want to band together as a community," he said. "There's no other place to go."
Jennifer Jiggetts, (757) 222-5150, email@example.com