Homeless people report being turned away from Richmond City Hall for shelter during storm: 'We're dehumanized’

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Posted at 8:06 PM, Sep 22, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- Amid the lack of a city-operated permanent inclement weather shelter, Richmond City Hall opened up as a "place of last refuge" for homeless individuals who have nowhere to take cover as Tropical Storm Ophelia approaches.

It opened at 5 p.m. Friday, but multiple people who showed up to take advantage of the resource said they were turned away. Several nonprofit organizers along with homeless people told CBS 6 that staff working inside City Hall told them they reached capacity shortly before 6 p.m. at 30 spots.

One mother named Cassidy and her young child said they were referred to City Hall by a nonprofit within the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care (GRCoC), which is the region's network of homeless assistance providers. However, she and her child were not let inside when they showed up for help.

"It's very shocking, and it's very sad because I thought we were all supposed to come around 5 o'clock, but it's like, everything's already at capacity," Cassidy said. "More than anything, I just feel very upset for the families, the mothers with children, or the elderly people, and just everybody that's sitting here outside."

According to people who did secure a spot, the space contained sets of tables and chairs, and meals were being provided, courtesy of Richmond Sheriff's deputies who brought food over from the jail. They said there were no cots or beds.

Richmond City spokesperson Petula Burks later told CBS 6 around 7 p.m. that the capacity was actually 40 and not all 40 spots had yet been filled as of 7 p.m. She also clarified that City Hall was not operating as an "inclement weather shelter" by name, but rather a last resort option.

Burks said the city was working with its partners within the GRCoC to find placement for other unhoused residents once City Hall reaches capacity, and the response to do so is a coordinated effort with them.

However, Burks said the reality is that some people will be left with nowhere to go.

"It is unfortunate, and it is heartbreaking, and we know we are going to miss someone," Burks said during a phone call with CBS 6 reporter Tyler Layne Friday evening. "If we had a magic wand, and we could fix this right now, we would. Unfortunately, we just can't."

A homeless man, who wished not to be identified by name, said he didn't know where he'd end up Friday night.

“Right now, it’s up in the air. I'm just hoping and pray that I find some safe, dry place, wherever that may be," he said. “It’s scary. It’s almost like a hopeless situation."

An inclement weather resolution passed by the Richmond City Council in 2020 requests that an emergency shelter be activated whenever there's more than an inch of precipitation or high winds in the forecast. The potential for rainfall in Central Virginia is 2-4 inches with wind gusts that could reach 40-50 mph.

While some councilmembers and activists, for years, have been calling on the city to establish a year-round weather shelter, those plans have been long delayed. However, there has been recent movement from the city administration with a proposal that would expand year-round shelter beds as well as inclement weather shelter beds.

The city does operate inclement weather shelters during the winter seasons, but they're closed between April and November of each year. In July, City Councilmember Stephanie Lynch asked Mayor Stoney's administration to keep a shelter open through this November for weather events such as a tropical storm. But Lynch's request was not fulfilled due to limited funding, Burks said.

Advocates and nonprofit leaders, who serve the city's homeless population, said they feel there's a pattern of a lack of preparedness for the vulnerable.

“Over and over, we hear the same thing year after year. Hopefully, we'll see a change at some point. They need to put themselves in the place of the people that's out here on the street," said Nancy Williams with the nonprofit 3Gifts2U.

“There's got to be a system in place. It's been happening for years. We got to get over this. These are human beings," said Joe Reeves, with Tabernacle of Praise, a church on the city's Southside that opens its doors to homeless people during the daytime hours.

Burks said the city's public libraries and social services buildings will serve as shelters during the daytime hours on Saturday as the storm continues moving through the area.

CBS 6 reached out to leaders with Homeward and the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care to ask about efforts and coordination to connect those in need to shelter resources during the storm.

"The Greater Richmond Continuum of Care partner agencies operate more than 250 year-round emergency shelter beds in the region and serve approximately 300 people experiencing homelessness each day. Those shelters will remain open this weekend and our regional homeless services system will continue to operate," said Homeward's Executive Director Kelly King-Horne in an email.

Advocates and homeless people said they'll continue to push for more organized and permanent solutions in the future.

“I just ask and pray that the city people will step up to the plate and do what's necessary for the people that's out here," Williams said.

“The people at the bottom, they’re left to fend for themselves, pretty much. It's like, we’re looked over. We’re dehumanized or whatever. We are not people," a homeless man said.

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