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Homeless couple shares struggle of accessing help during pandemic: 'You feel helpless'

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Posted at 6:24 PM, Jan 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-26 18:24:06-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- On Monday night, Brittney Sisler and her fiancé William McElhannon accessed shelter at a hotel on Arthur Ashe Boulevard, temporarily the site of the region’s cold weather safety net shelter. But the couple said they spent Sunday night sleeping on the street.

Leaders and advocates in Richmond are in the process of determining the future of homeless services in the city and surrounding counties in the form of an “Homelessness Advisory Council.”

Local organizations have pivoted their intake and shelter operations because of safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and some leaders said that shift has caused confusion for some residents.

Sisler and McElhannon said their interactions with the current system has provided shelter in times of need but gaining that access has been challenging. They wanted to share their experience so others could learn from what they see.

“You feel helpless,” Sisler said of not having permanent housing since McElhannon lost his job last fall. “All the emotions just flood over you. To me it does. I don’t know what else to do but just sit and just cry it out for a while.”

Since last fall, the couple said at least two different local organizations have helped them with lodging for several weeks, but they said finding correct information did prove challenging at times.

“If you want the help, you have to apply yourself,” McElhannon said.

“You really got to go digging. It’s really hard to know where to go. Who to look up. Who to ask. What questions to ask,” Sisler said.

During a presentation on the homeless service situation to Richmond City Council Monday evening, council members expressed concern that communication lapses have led to confusion.

In April 2020, the group of organizations the assist the unsheltered community launched a non-congregate care setting for those who needed shelter. Hotel rooms were provided to individuals and families in need to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Then, at the beginning of January 2021, a Safety Net Shelter System was set up at the Quality Inn Hotel near the Diamond for those who needed immediate, emergency shelter when temperatures dip below 40 degrees.

Monday, city officials said both systems remain in place but are designed to help different populations because of limited resources.

The Pandemic Shelter System using hotel rooms prioritizes people 65 and older, families with children, those with medical conditions, or those experiencing an immediate housing crisis. The Safety Net Shelter is designed for individuals who do not meet those criteria but need shelter during inclement weather.

Stephanie Lynch, the 5th District representative on City Council, said their body must decide whether or not to provide a permanent cold weather shelter moving forward, calling the current conference room set up “temporary.”

“Where is that cold, inclement weather shelter going to go, who is going to manage that, what does the point of entry process look like? All of these questions are absolutely critical to sure that not only we’re on the same page, but the folks who are receiving services, who are working with individuals receiving services, have access to the same information. Quite frankly, just know where to go,” Lynch said.

City officials said the need in the Richmond metro is great and the network of organizations providing homeless services in the region are working hard to get as many people help as possible. In 2020, organizations provide 128,762 total bed nights to 2,927 clients in emergency shelter programs.

Sisler and McElhannon said the workers who provided them help have been compassionate and kind. They believe a lack of resources has hampered their experience. The couple has been told they have access to the shelter for one more night, but they are unclear about what happens next.

"I don’t know what we’re waiting on. I just know we’re waiting on someone to do something else,” McElhannon said.

"I’m going through health issues and my health issues are effected by not having a stable situation, being out here stuck in the cold or the weather.” Silser said.

City council members said Monday night the advisory council must address the issue of whether or not to establish a permanent cold weather shelter, find ways to close communication gaps, and work to identify portions of the city where evictions are most pronounced.

If you or someone you know if facing homelessness, call the Homeless Crisis Line at 804-972-0813