RICHMOND, Va. -- The City of Richmond has now opened its third inclement weather shelter this winter season, after facing significant delays, expanding overnight capacity for its homeless residents by 60 beds.
Curtis Surpless, who said he's been living on the streets for much of his life, recalled bearing through frigid conditions over the Christmas holiday when an arctic blast brought single-digit temperatures to Central Virginia.
Thankfully, he was able to sleep in the doorway of a local business during its closed hours, but until he gained access to that, he said being outside was miserable. And he felt frustrated that the city had only opened two of its four overnight shelters at the time.
“It sends the message that city leadership really doesn’t care," Surpless said. "Try staying outside. Have the leaders stay outside with us for one or two nights when it’s cold. Grab a sleeping bag, have them stay outside.”
Last season, Surpless said he took advantage of the hotel ballrooms that the city utilized to shelter people. He said those resources were immediately available when he needed to access shelter, unlike this winter so far.
"I'm like, what in the world? You have Christmas Eve, especially a holiday where it's supposed to be like the giving season stuff, and they couldn't give the warmth? And I thought that was lame that they opened up City Hall during the day on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but they didn't leave it open during the night," Surpless said.
Amid the dangerously low temperatures in December, the city's two shelters quickly reached capacity, leaving many vulnerable individuals and families questioning where'd they go for warmth. A number of community organizations stepped up to fill in some of the gaps.
Commonwealth Catholic Charities (CCC) was supposed to begin operating one of the city's shelters back in November, but delays in working out a contract with the city continued to push back the timeline. In late December, CCC partially opened its shelter anyway thanks to private funding, with no support from the city, in order to help those in need during the cold blast.
Now, CCC's shelter is fully operational. On Friday, CCC said it finalized a contract with the city, which will secure about $1.3 million for the services. The resource will offer 60 beds, meals, restroom facilities, case management, and other resources through April 14.
The shelter will serve as a drop-in space. Referrals are not necessary.
“Praise God," said Richmond Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch.
After she consistently applied public pressure on the city administration to prioritize the shelters, Lynch said she's optimistic about the direction the city is taking.
"I think that the stakeholders, community members, the city, and certainly city council have put a lot of work and a lot of time into standing up a continuum of shelters," she said. “I feel like we have arrived at a much better place than where we were even several weeks ago.”
She said the fourth and final shelter located at 5th Street Baptist Church should be approved to open on Monday when the council is set to clear a zoning issue that's causing a holdup.
Even with progress being made, Lynch said she's still calling for an investigation into how the administration is managing its shelters and spending funds. She said she'd like to see all four shelters finalize contracts with the city as RVA Sisters Keeper and United Nations Church have been operating shelters since November without a contract in place.
“We've got a series of questions to ensure that we are prepared moving forward," Lynch said. "From what I can see in some of those emerging conversations around where the money is going to go in the coming year and the solutions that we're going to focus on looking forward.”
One solution she continues to push for includes the city establishing a year-round, 24/7 "code blue" shelter that would be prepared to open at any time during any emergency. She said the city is investing an additional $1 million into homelessness services this year which will go toward the year-round facility.
"It will have the capacity to serve individuals and families who are in need of a sheltering resource, and it will serve as a referral point for other shelter providers in the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care," Lynch said. "It really brings home to roost some of those solutions that we have been talking about really since 2020."
Surpless agreed with the councilor and said it's a resource that many people could take advantage of.
"A one-stop 24/7 thing, they've got things like that in other cities. Why this city doesn't? I don't know," Surpless said. “It still is a city with homeless people, so they should have a one-point stop."
Being a voice for the voiceless, Surpless said he'll continue to advocate for more support for the homeless population and work to eliminate the stigma.
“I mean, a lot of us aren’t drug-addicted, alcoholic losers," he said. "Some of us have college degrees, are veterans, or could do something for the city."
A spokesperson said city shelters will open overnight this coming weekend as low temperatures are expected below freezing. The shelters combined offer 160 beds. Once the shelter at 5th Street Baptist opens, the capacity will expand to 190 beds.