Leaders concerned as people sleep outside closed homeless shelters: 'Somebody dropped the ball'

Posted at 7:24 PM, Apr 19, 2023

RICHMOND, Va -- Over the past few nights, people have been sleeping on the ground outside of closed homeless shelters, including a woman named Geneva who wants the public to see the photos.

“I want you to really post and let the community see how we're really sleeping outside," Geneva said. "Like ever since they shut this shelter, we’ve been outside.”


On Saturday, the City of Richmond closed down its three inclement weather shelters, which were contracted to operate from November through April 15th. The shelters opened later than expected this season, and the fourth shelter to which the city allotted funding, never opened.

Geneva said she was staying at the site on Chamberlayne Avenue, which was operated by Commonwealth Catholic Charities.

She said when it closed, she had nowhere to go next.

“They just kept saying we’re on the lists. We’re on the list. They're going to call us. Nobody has called me yet," she said.

Gayle Freeland, who said she has been experiencing homelessness since 2019, was staying at the women's shelter operated by RVA Sister's Keeper on the Southside. But when she had to leave, she said there weren't many options.

“I don’t think they’re doing enough. I don’t think they’re doing anything, really. Basically, it’s a sham," Freeland said. “Nobody in their right mind who has never been homeless can understand this.”

Both Freeland and Geneva said sleeping on the streets is terrifying, and they said they wished there was a facility that could provide year-round shelter.

“I don't care if you do a 24-hour shelter all year-round. Just get us off the streets. I'm scared," Geneva said.

Nonprofit leaders agree.

"They do need an entry point," said Nancy Williams with the oganization 3Gifts2U Ministries. "When they closed the shelters down... they were sleeping out there in front of the doors, sleeping on the pavement."

For years, Richmond City Councilmembers have pushed for a year-round point of entry emergency shelter that could operate regardless of the calendar date and provide immediate support to those in a housing crisis.

The request was first documented in a resolution passed by the council in December 2020. Through the resolution, councilors asked Mayor Levar Stoney's administration to present a report identifying a location for an inclement weather shelter that could operate irrespective of the calendar date.

"The City Council’s Inclement Weather Shelter Resolution is not an ordinance and therefore is not a city law or regulation but is an “ask” of the Council to the Administration," said city administration spokesperson Petula Burks in an email. "Specifically, there is NO ordinance that requires the City to establish a year-round inclement weather shelter."

Burks added that the city did identify a year-round location in 2022 when the city attempted to work with Commonwealth Catholic Charities (CCC) to expand its facility on Oliver Hill Way.

However, Burks said CCC "decided to use their facility for another purpose."

On Wednesday, twelve volunteers of multiple local non-profits that serve the homeless community including 3Gifts2U, Blessing Warriors RVA, Humanitarian Ambassadors of America, RVA Humble Beginnings, 5 Loaves, and Tabernacle of Praise joined forces to call for action.

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“Together we can accomplish a lot," Williams said.

The volunteers work every day to provide meals, clothing, mentoring and spiritual guidance to those in need.

They said they've seen an increase in need since the city closed its shelters over the weekend.

“They need more than just shelters for winter. They need housing all year long," Williams said. “Somebody dropped the ball. I don't know who did it, but these people, it's not fair.”

Rhonda Sneed of Blessing Warriors RVA said she was disappointed more supports were not in place when the shelters closed.

She said the same thing happens every year: the inclement weather shelters close for the season and people are left scrambling. Then, city officials talk about the need for a year-round shelter, but another year goes by, and there's no shelter.

“They knew April 15th comes the same time every year. What’s going on? What are they going to do about it? City council had a meeting three years ago about a year-round shelter. Where are they at?" Sneed said. "I'm tired of meeting. I'm tired of talking. We’re out here 24/7 feeding the people, taking care of them. Where’s the money? Who's accountable for the money? Where is it? I’m just fed up with this.”

Arlene Simmons with the Humanitarian Ambassadors of America said the lack of support is putting people in dangerous situations, adding that homeless people have been assaulted in the streets.

"These are some of the scenarios that no one is paying attention to. All the organizations out here doing the work-- we need funding. We need help," Simmons said. "We're calling attention to the suffering, to the crime, to the children and families who are caught in the middle of this."

Burks said the regional Greater Richmond Continuum of Care system has 12 homeless shelters in the city and two outside of the city. In total, they provide 265 year-round beds. The city plans to add 50 beds to the regional shelter system if it can identify a location and provider.

The city provided about $4.5 million in funding to the four inclement weather shelters this season. However, one of them did not open. Burks said the city will find out how much of that $4.5 million was not used once an audit of the funds is complete in May.

She added the city does have the ability to amend existing contracts with its partners or enter new contracts for next season. However, she said the city "does not have the funding in place to operate a year-round facility at this point in time."

The latest regional point-in-time count found that, on any given day, 690 people in Central Virginia are experiencing homelessness and 188 are staying in unsheltered conditions.

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