RICHMOND, Va. -- Those in Richmond's homeless community said it was a "horrific" experience as they were out on the streets while powerful storms that knocked out electricity and caused damage passed through Central Virginia Thursday night.
“It was brutal. We go out 24/7 no matter the weather, but it was a safety risk for us to be out in our vehicles," said Traci Byrd-Eagles, a volunteer with the nonprofit Blessing Warriors RVA. "The wind was so intense. No human should have been out in that kind of weather."
Volunteers with Blessing Warriors, which serves the region's homeless population, said they found about fifty people in Downtown Richmond trying to take cover from the storms.
“They took cover underneath a church awning and [there were] a couple inside of dumpsters and the flaps on the dumpsters were flapping," Byrd-Eagles. “The wind was so intense. No human should have been out in that kind of weather.”
Michael Dutz, who said he has been homeless in Richmond for the past three years, was out in the elements Thursday. He said he was holed up under the portico of a church, getting soaked, with nowhere else to go.
“It was horrific," Dutz said. “In my 61 years, it’s the closest I’ve ever got to seeing lightning shots, lightning bolts come down.”
He continued, “There was no place that was open to the public to go. The homeless have to make do with what they have.”
Byrd-Eagles said the storms underscored the need for the City of Richmond to establish a year-round 24/7 emergency shelter.
“There should be an emergency shelter for storms that are coming through. When that radar was shown, there should have been an automatic, ready to open protocol, ready to go," Byrds-Eagles said. "It is a complete failure."
The city operates inclement weather shelters seasonally from November through April in partnership with nonprofits. During the other months, the city doesn't operate overnight shelters, though other regional shelters with limited capacity are available as part of the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care.
In 2020, the City Council passed a resolution, which Mayor Stoney's administration previously said it was not required to follow since it is not an ordinance (city law), that sets guidelines for when the administration should activate an inclement weather shelter during other months of the year. Per the resolution, those conditions include temperatures above 92 degrees or when the forecast includes more than an inch of rain or high winds.
Petula Burks, a spokesperson for the city administration, said Thursday's storms were fast moving and did not meet the requirements as listed in the inclement weather resolution. Burks said public libraries and the social services building were open during the daytime when afternoon temperatures were in the mid-90s to 100. She said the city did not need to open a shelter during the evening as temperatures dipped below 92.
Members of a Richmond City Council committee asked the city administration in July to keep one of the inclement weather shelters open throughout the summer until November, when the seasonal shelters are set to open, for emergency weather situations. But Chief Administrative Officer Lincoln Saunders rejected that request, saying the city was prioritizing its cooling stations and expanding year-round shelter capacity instead.
This week, Saunders unveiled a new plan that would add 100 beds to the region's year-round emergency shelter system. The city is proposing to stand up two new shelter locations, one downtown and one on the northside, in partnership with nonprofits.
The plan also calls for a housing resource center, which would serve as a physical point of entry into the region's network of homeless assistance. Currently, most homeless people in Central Virginia are entered into the system through a phone hotline.
Councilmembers, activists, and homeless people have been calling on the city to take action on a year-round shelter for years, but implementation has faced many delays and obstacles.
“There is an expression in the homeless community that says the homeless take care of the homeless better than the city does, and it’s an axiom that is absolutely true," Dutz said.
Dutz said while he supports the city's plan, he's skeptical about the execution of it.
"I believe in tooth fairies too. We'll see if the city ever gets around to it," Dutz said.
Burks said the city is working diligently to offer more resources to homeless residents.
"We continuously work to pivot when the weather changes and prioritize life and safety at all times," Burks said..
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