Richmond's final report on homeless shelter services causes 'extreme and profound sadness'

Posted at 4:52 PM, Jun 13, 2023

RICHMOND, Va -- A crowd of frustrated advocates and unhoused residents vocalized their concerns about the state of Richmond's homeless shelters as city administration officials gave their final report on last season's inclement weather shelters.

Some people experiencing homelessness attended Richmond City Council's Education and Human Services Committee meeting on Thursday, June 8, to speak before city leaders about their experiences with Richmond's shelter system. The committee is made up of Councilmembers Stephanie Lynch, Cynthia Newbille, and Andreas Addison.

A mother of five named Tracy said she utilized one of the city's shelters for about a week and then was put into a hotel.

"I have to be out tomorrow. I call that [Homeless Connection Line] every week, and nothing is happening. I’ve been in this situation for a long time and have not got help yet, like almost a year. So, all those numbers they were saying, they didn’t help me," Tracy said.

(For context, the homeless connection line is a phone number operated by non-profits and serves as an entry point into the region's network of homeless assistance and year-round shelters.)

Another woman named Sharon, who explained she has experienced homelessness in three different states, said Richmond's services have been the most lackluster in comparison.

“This is the first time I’ve been disgusted by the lack of services. I’m not understanding why there’s not any transitional housing or partners with the housing authorities," Sharon said. “It’s baffling, like there are no options at all. I lived in Pennsylvania and had options and immediate help, lived in Colorado and had immediate help. Here, you’re just lost. Figure it out.”

Several advocates who volunteer to support Richmond's homeless community also spoke before the committee.

Among the issues they brought up: A need to put all the city's homelessness resources in one centralized building that can remain open year-round, a need to audit the funds spent and services provided by the inclement weather shelters during the last season, and a lack of proper case management provided by the shelter partners.

“Everybody that’s claiming that they’re providing services, they’re not providing these services. The only way that you can actually know what's going on is to send out an audit team," said non-profit leader Nancy Williams.

"What we need City Council to do is hold these organizations accountable," advocate Bridget Whitaker said.

The City of Richmond approved $4.5 million to four non-profit organizations to operate scattered inclement weather shelters from November through April. Those organizations included RVA Sister's Keeper, United Nations, Commonwealth Catholic Charities, and 5th Street Baptist Church.

However, Commonwealth Catholic Charities delayed opening its shelter due to contract issues with the city, and 5th Street Baptist never opened its shelter at all.

On Thursday, Richmond's Housing Director Sherrill Hampton gave a final report on the shelters' services and expenses to the council committee.

In her report, Hampton said the shelters combined filled about 19,000 beds this past season.

Together, she said the shelters connected 45 individuals and 28 families to housing opportunities which included year-round shelters, substance abuse shelters, and previous or newly-leased housing units:

  • Commonwealth Catholic Charities connected 20 people to housing opportunities
  • RVA Sister's Keeper connected 28 families and 21 individuals to housing opportunities
  • United Nations connected 4 individuals to housing opportunities

Combined, the three shelters spent more than $1.5 million and Hampton said there may still be outstanding invoices.
“They were running on a monthly run rate that we just can’t afford," said Councilmember Stephanie Lynch, who chairs the committee. "We would have to renegotiate that."

“We also concur with you that it was an expensive experiment to have three sites with three different providers," Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Sharon Ebert said.

Since the initial funding was appropriated on a two-year cycle, the city administration expects to have $2.8 million remaining for next season. Hampton said the inclement weather shelters would need to use every bit of that $2.8 million for operating expenses between November and April.

However, Lynch said it's the desire of councilmembers to take the unspent balance and reopen the shelters immediately, as soon as July.

“It would behoove us to set up something sooner than later, even if it is not in the November timeframe. Why? Because the sooner we can case manage folks, and no they are not being case managed by the homeless connection line, the sooner we can get folks case managed and get them the help that they need, we can start moving folks through the system," Lynch said.

She added that the region's homeless support network, the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care, is "inundated" and "cannot possibly satiate the need that is out there in the community."

"We’ve been here so many times before. We have the ability to do something differently this year, and I would hate for us to pass that opportunity up and for folks to be languishing in the streets," Lynch said.

She said her comments come from a place of "extreme and profound sadness" for what the homeless population is going through.

Richmond City Councilor Andreas Addison echoed Lynch's sentiments and said the city "must act."

However, he said his authority as a councilmember, as laid out in the city charter, limits his action and that all he can do is ask the city administration to "please do some more."

"We get looked at to blame of 'why are things not happening,' and we can't do more than just policy requests and funding approval. Beyond that, we have nothing we can bring to the table, and it's unfortunate because that's the situation that we're in," Addison said.

Ebert responded that the administration is "working on this."

"Obviously, we don’t have a definitive solution at this point, but it is a daily effort to be working with the providers and to be searching for facilities so we can have what you’re looking for," Ebert said.

Stephen Harms, the Senior Policy Advisor to Chief Administrative Officer Lincoln Saunders, said the administration is looking to improve the services offered in the shelters.

"As you know, the winter shelters are not generally service-rich. They are open at night. They close during the day. With these resources that you appropriated in the budget, that would be our goal. Can we take a step further in the way we’ve been running our shelter businesses and improve the services we provide to the families and individuals that come into the shelters so that we can rapidly get them into more stable housing?” Harms said.

Staff from one of the city's shelter providers, RVA Sister's Keeper, was in attendance at Thursday's meeting.

The organization's lead case manager spoke to the committee about the limited case management she was able to provide, because case managers were only able to work from 5 p.m. - 9 p.m.

The case manager then grew frustrated at the complaints she received from homelessness advocates and engaged in an argument with an advocate inside council chambers.

"Security, we need order in this chamber," Lynch declared.

The case manager was removed.

“I want to apologize on behalf of our case manager," Gerri Archer with RVA Sister's Keeper later told the committee. "Emotions are high in this day and age, and the reason why emotions are so high is because we’ve been doing all we can as a new provider. We’ve been getting harassed, we’ve been getting phone calls, we’ve had folks sitting outside of our shelters, taking pictures, putting our families in comprising positions."

Archer said she and her partner have been working in the mental health field since 2008, although they have not previously worked directly with the homeless population. She also wanted to stress that even though case management was limited, the organization referred folks to outside agencies.

She added there is an audit underway and that RVA Sister's Keeper is being cooperative.

Lynch is pushing for a scrutinized review of how funds were spent and questioned whether they were used appropriately relevant to services provided.

She said the committee plans to draft a memo requesting the city administration release funds to stand up a temporary site to offer immediate homelessness assistance.

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