'What's the plan?' Richmond Councilors criticize city for repeated lack of preparedness to shelter homeless

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Posted at 7:11 PM, Sep 26, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-27 01:11:35-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Richmond City Councilmembers criticized Mayor Levar Stoney's administration for seemingly being continuously unprepared to provide shelter to homeless individuals during weather emergencies, with one member suggesting the administration does not share the same moral priorities as the council.

Homeless advocates took to council chambers Tuesday afternoon during a public safety committee meeting to speak out against the city's response to Tropical Storm Ophelia as it pertained to sheltering homeless people.

"My heart broke. Once again, we're behind the eight ball being retroactive instead of proactive," said Bridgette Whitaker with the nonprofit Blessing Warriors. "I'm concerned at how many departments and procedures are dysfunctional and falling apart behind the scenes. We're looking like a joke right now."

"We could have done better. We could have allocated for more people," said Nancy Williams with the nonprofit 3Blessings2U. "It's supposed to be a city of compassion. I don't see it."

Friday afternoon around 2:20 p.m., as the storm approached, the City of Richmond announced that City Hall would open as a "place of last refuge," not an inclement weather shelter, at 5 p.m. for homeless people who had nowhere to go.

CBS 6 was at City Hall Friday night and spoke with multiple people and nonprofit organizers who said folks were turned away because City Hall had reached capacity at 30 spots around 6 p.m. A city spokesperson later told CBS 6 that the capacity was 40 spots.

A mother named Cassidy said she and her child were not allowed inside.

“It’s sad and surprising because I thought we were all supposed to come around 5 o’clock, but it’s like, everything is at capacity," Cassidy told CBS 6.

CBS 6 requested a response from Mayor Stoney. He did not provide a direct response, but a spokesperson sent a statement saying the city did not turn anyone away, rather they did not have the capacity to meet some peoples' needs.

"We're tired of these games as citizens. We're not dumb. We see what's going on. Stop lying on us," said Whitaker, who was there Friday night at City Hall and witnessed people get turned away, reacting to the city's statement.

Following this weekend, council members at Tuesday's meeting all had the same question: What's the plan?

  • “Do we have a plan in place?” said Councilmember Ann-Frances Lambert.
  • “What’s in place?” said Councilmember Reva Trammell.
  • “We did not have a plan for it," said Councilmember Stephanie Lynch.
  • “We need something in place," said Councilmember Kristen Nye.

The councilors expressed frustration to Emergency Preparedness Director Stephen Willoughby that the administration ends up in the same position time and time again.

“Stephen, we have been here not once, not twice, not three times, four times, five times. This is the seventh time," said Lynch. "We have all been in a predicament where we are facing a very serious weather event that could cause harm to the unhoused, very medically vulnerable communities, and we did not have a plan for it."

"I think the vibe of the council is we'd rather get it stood up and then shut it down at the last minute if the storm doesn't hit us, than throw something together at the last minute. That is not a good solution for our unhoused residents," Nye said.

Lambert recalled December 2022 when an arctic blast brought below-freezing temperatures to Richmond, and the city was late opening its seasonal inclement weather shelters, so City Hall opened as a warming center but did not remain open overnight.

"But I'm sitting there like, 'Why are we on a Friday, last minute, it's a holiday, everybody's gone, and we have this major storm coming through,'" Lambert said. "It was just a cluster."

Among the councilmembers' other concerns, they said city employees who are not trained to work with the homeless should not be the ones staffing emergency shelters. They also said City Hall, which did not provide any overnight beds or cots over the weekend, is not an ideal location.

Lambert asked why community centers could not be designated as emergency shelters.

“We allocated $4.5 million towards this. Not all of it has been spent. We've given you guys the money, so we need you guys to reassure us that this is going to happen," Lambert said.

Councilors asked Willoughby to define which criteria would activate an emergency shelter, what the go-to emergency location for shelter is, and for the response plan to rapidly shelter folks during a weather event.

Willoughby said, that while he has participated in some of that planning, he has not been the one leading the effort. He did not have definitive answers.

“I’m going to be honest with you. I've learned a lot in the less than a year that I've been in this role, and there's lots of plans that are being baked that we need to get across the line," Willoughby said. “I just ask, for me just on my behalf, just have a little patience with me, but we're working through these.”

The city's Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Traci Deshazor later joined the meeting and answered the councilors' questions.

She said the city has been operating off the inclement weather resolution passed by the City Council in 2020 which requests the administration to activate a shelter during extreme temperatures, significant precipitation, high winds, and other forms of severe weather.

Deshazor said she recognized that City Hall was not ideal to serve as a shelter, but that was the "option in place."

"It is worth noting that we do have limited space and resources, and so, we did what we had to do, and we are very proud of what we were able to do to support 40 individuals for a sustained period over the course of the entire weekend," Deshazor said, adding there were no problematic internal incidents.

Deshazor added that the city worked with the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care to find placement in the regional shelter system for four people during the storm.

Administration officials are expected to present an ordinance in October that includes a new proposalfor year-round inclement weather shelter. Willoughby said he was "pretty confident" that the ordinance would outline emergency plans and address the council's concerns as to what triggers an emergency shelter response.

Councilmembers said they were supposed to receive the ordinance on Monday and are concerned about the delay. This season's inclement weather shelters are not expected to open until December 1, so they want answers as to what happens in the case of an emergency between now and then.

"We need some more immediate, but likely temporary, solutions before all of that comes together," Nye said.

Lynch said she believed, ultimately, the underlying issue is that the moral priorities of the council and the mayor's administration are at odds.

"I think the fundamental challenge that we have as a city is whether or not it is our moral obligation to shelter people in emergent weather situations. That's our issue, and I think that we are not on the same page," Lynch said.

Advocates said they're fed up.

"You are our leaders. We look up to you all for help. How can we come to you all when you guys seem like you guys are kind of scrambling to know what's going on yourselves," Williams said.

Here is the full statement provided to CBS 6 by Richmond spokesperson Petula Burks when asked for a response from Mayor Stoney:

The City’s priority is the health and well-being of all our residents.  Our unhoused residents continue to be a top concern and an area where we are diligently working to increase options and reduce barriers for them to receive assistance in an expeditious manner.

This past Friday was an example of how our community comes together to ensure that those seeking shelter from Tropical Storm Ophelia had places to go.  While the City, along with the entire GRoCC, would love to be able to touch all of the unhoused, we recognize that is humanly impossible.

The City did not turn any individual away, however, we did work with a few individuals who had some specific needs that our team at city hall did not have the capacity to meet.  We collaborated with our partners and were able to find them alternate shelter options.

As a part of the ongoing effort to add additional beds year-round, the City has worked tirelessly to bring forth a plan for a year-round shelter as well as provide another IWS. 

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