Councilmembers concerned about lack of progress on Richmond homeless shelters: 'Definition of insanity'

Posted at 7:27 PM, Apr 24, 2023

RICHMOND, Va -- Some Richmond City Council members said they were disappointed and ready to take further action as the city enters another year without a year-round shelter in place to support Richmond's homeless population.

"We were looking for the mayor to come up with a year-round solution for sheltering our unsheltered population and making sure we have emergency shelter available for extreme weather events," Richmond City Council Vice President Kristen Nye (4th District), said. "I'm really disappointed that we don't after three, four years in the making."

Four organizations were contracted to operate overnight shelters between November and April, however, one of those shelters did not open for the season.

Last week, CBS 6 spoke to several people who were utilizing the city's scattered inclement weather sites over the winter season, but when the shelters closed in April, they said they were left with nowhere to go.

“Just get us off the streets. I’m scared," said one woman named Geneva who explained that she now sleeps on the streets outside one of the closed shelters.

“I don’t think they’re doing enough. I don’t think they’re doing anything really," a woman experiencing homelessness named Gayle Freeland said.

Nonprofit leaders also told CBS 6 they noticed an increase in people in need after the city closed its shelters, and they renewed their calls for a year-round shelter.

“At some point, we have got to simply pull the trigger and really make a decision on how we are going to address an issue we know comes up every single year," Richmond City Council President Mike Jones (9th District) said.

Jones said discussions about a year-round shelter, which could immediately open during emergencies and serve as an entry point to the shelter system, were not new and have been in the works for years.

In December 2020, the council passed a resolution requesting that the administration present options for a year-round facility.

Then in May 2021, council passed another resolution requesting that the administration devote dollars from the $5.8 million it received in homelessness assistance from the federal government to a year-round shelter.

However, this month, Richmond housing director Sherill Hampton told a council committee that the city did not direct any of those funds to a year-round shelter.

Instead, the funds were put toward permanent supportive housing.

In a written statement to CBS 6, city administration spokesperson Petula Burks said the council's request was in the form of a resolution, not an ordinance. Therefore, she said, it was only an "ask" of the administration and not city law.

"Specifically, there is NO ordinance that requires the City to establish a year-round inclement weather shelter," Burks wrote.

In response, Nye said she is "fully supportive" of the council taking further action on this matter.

“If we need to change this from a resolution to an ordinance to make it law, I'm open to doing that, but I'm hopeful that the administration will get it together," Nye said. "We took [action] once in 2020. I am ready to take it again if that's what it takes."

Asked if he would also support legislative action, Jones said, "I think we have to look and see where the dollars are, where we can appropriate them, and then how do we move together? I don't necessarily want to come in and tell the administration what to do. I would hope that we can sit down and find a pathway forward."

During an April 13 Education and Human Services Committee meeting, city officials told the committee that they were still trying to identify a location and provider for a year-round shelter.

“I don’t have results. There’s been a lot of effort, but you’re not interested in effort. You want results. We don’t have those yet. But I do expect to have those recommendations soon," Stephen Harms, Senior Policy Advisor to Chief Administrative Officer Lincoln Saunders, told the committee.

Committee chairperson, Councilor Stephanie Lynch (5th District), told Harms she'd rather see action over recommendations.

She said after the city failed to have emergency shelters prepared last year during "violent weather conditions," to make no improvements would be "the definition of insanity."

"We've been talking about this, for not just three years but decades. And it strikes me that we are continuing to scratch our heads and come up with ideas when there are stakeholders that have presented proposals, there are models that we all I think have come to large consensus on. Not only that, we have passed... resolutions that we have not lived up to," Lynch said.

She added, "I'm just trying to get to the heart of how do we actually execute on these things? We can't be in a place where we're talking and having conversations about considerations and recommendations in April when we have very, very real lives that are being impacted every day, and we need to come to a solution and get to a better place yesterday."

Harms responded with, "I appreciate your frustration, and I appreciate also the history lesson I just got."

Harms said the "one-stop shop" shelter facility council members were interested in bringing to Richmond, based on a model in Virginia Beach, may not be a "perfect solution."

"Even if the region were to adopt that, we still would need the entire network of providers that we have right now providing those other shelter beds," Harms said. "It would be nice to have a physical location for people to go to as a point of entry. Right now, it is a bone system point of entry."

Harms said establishing a year-round facility and improving the regional extreme weather response will take a regional approach, and he said the city will be reaching out to surrounding county managers for help.

Currently, he said the city alone does not have the funding to operate a year-round shelter and that no locality can afford to establish a walk-up shelter beyond April 15.

"I know this is not a satisfactory answer for those who will not have the shelter, and I know it's hard to hear that. As in all programs, this is time-limited, and it's fund limited. And I know the perception is there are some leftover funds. We will be needing those funds to get a more permanent solution, and to get us through the next winter," Harms said.

But some council members seemed to disagree.

"If this is a money issue, we have funding. It's just a matter of figuring out how to finagle it to make it work," Lynch said.

"If you want to know what's important to a particular locality, look at their budget. What do we budget for this? The dollars can be appropriated, because we've run a surplus for years. We can do it. Question is, what does that fix look like?" Jones said.

Moving forward, Councilor Lynch requested more information about monthly operating expenses to see what it would cost to extend operations for some of the inclement weather shelters this year, how much the shelters spent this past season, and how much money is left over from the total $4.4 million the city awarded its partners.

Burks said that information will be available in May once the final invoices and reports were completed.

Beyond an analysis of how funds were spent, Nye would also like to review the services provided by the inclement weather shelters this past season.

"I think it's important that we look at all of our partners that we've been giving dollars to and ensuring that they are delivering the services that we contractually had on paper that they are supposed to do on behalf of the city to provide for our unhoused population. Not only are they providing the shelter, as well as the supportive services, but they're also supposed to be working with these residents to make sure they are finding a next step and that when the shelter is closed, that they're not out on the streets," Nye said.

She added, "If we see that our partners are not delivering on the services they say they offer, then we need to find other partners or we need to look at doing this ourselves."

Jones said if the city doesn't make any changes within the next couple months, the city will be in the exact same position next year.

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