Richmond to expand homeless shelter capacity, but concerns linger over access points and crisis funding

Blessing Warriors RVA
Posted at 6:35 PM, Sep 14, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-14 18:56:47-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- A mixture of optimism and concern filled Richmond Council Chambers Thursday afternoon as officials and community members discussed new proposals to expand and improve homeless services in the city.

About half a dozen advocates attended the council's education and human services committee meeting to voice their frustrations about what they believed to be a lack of resources for the homeless population.

“What are we going to do to protect those who cannot protect themselves when the storms or hurricanes or whatever are coming?” said Nancy Williams, who runs a local nonprofit that serves homeless people.

“Once again, we are before you, and once again, four or five years later, without an inclement weather shelter functioning and in place," said Bridget Whitaker, a local advocate for the homeless community.

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The committee received an update Thursday from the city administration about its progress on expanding homeless shelter capacity for the most vulnerable.

Since 2020, the council has been pushing for the administration to set up year-round emergency shelter, since currently the city only operates weather shelters on a seasonal basis. Now, the administration has delivered a proposal.

“We're really just adding to what was existing and enhancing and improving the system that exists now, and that's what we've been calling for for three years," said Councilor Stephanie Lynch (5th District) in an interview with CBS 6 before the meeting.

Salvation Army location at 1900 Chamberlayne Avenue
Salvation Army location at 1900 Chamberlayne Avenue

The plan includes partnering with the Salvation Army to establish 150 inclement weather shelter beds at a location at 1900 Chamberlayne Avenue for this winter. According to a city presentation, the plan is to have the shelter open by December 1.

Then after the winter season, the Salvation Army would convert 50 beds into year-round shelter and retain 100 beds only for weather emergencies.

An additional location in Downtown Richmond at an old hostel, in partnership with Home Again, would host another 50 year-round shelter beds starting in May.

"We have needed to create that capacity for years," Lynch said. “But it took us this long to get to the point where we would commit time, resources, energy and love into this project.”

This former hostel in Downtown Richmond would host 50 year-round shelter beds.
This former hostel in Downtown Richmond would host 50 year-round shelter beds.

These 100 additional year-round beds will be added to the region's network of homeless assistance, the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care (GRCoC), and people will still go through a coordinated-entry and prioritization process to get placement in the shelters. Essentially, that means they will not serve as "walk-up" shelters.

Richmond's Deputy Chief Administrative Officer of Human Services Traci Deshazor said the new beds would expand the region's existing capacity of family beds by 67% and single adult beds by 43%, taking the number of total beds from about 320 to 420.

The Salvation Army's shelter would also accommodate a housing resource center, which Lynch hopes will be open seven days a week to provide information and referrals for homeless people in crisis on a walk-up basis.

Lynch, who chairs the human services committee, said she wants the resource center to serve as a physical point of entry into the GRCoC's shelter system. Currently, most people are entered into the system through the Homeless Connection Line, a phone number for people to call when they reach an emergency.

Lynch asked Deshazor during the committee meeting whether the center will be considered a physical point of entry but did receive a direct answer.

"Are those staff members who are doing intake going to be trained to prioritize entry? Are they going to do the streamlined assessments, and are they going to... make referrals into GRCoC? Essentially, are they going to be, in addition to the crisis line, a physical point of entry and access point for folks?" Lynch asked.

Richmond City Councilor Stephanie Lynch (5th District)
Richmond City Councilor Stephanie Lynch (5th District)

"It would be a little bit premature at this point for us to say a definitive 'yes,' but I will say that we're doing everything that we can to ensure that that resource center is as beneficial as possible to all the residents that will be coming through," Deshazor said.

Lynch responded that it was a simple yes or no question and asked Deshazor whether Homeward, the GRCoC's planning agency and an operator of the Homeless Connection Line, is involved in that decision about point of entry.

"We're working very closely together. I think it's going to be a matter of two things: our continued coordination with the GRCoC and then also just internally ensuring that we have the necessary staff support in place to be able to actually facilitate that," Deshazor replied.

Richmond's Chief Administrative Officer of Human Services Traci Deshazor
Richmond's Chief Administrative Officer of Human Services Traci Deshazor

Lynch also expressed concern that the administration may not commit to adding $750,000 back into the Family Crisis Fund, which is a program, in partnership with HumanKind, that offers direct cash to help pay for Richmonders' hotel rooms, rent, and utilities. It's an ask that City Councilmembers put in a recent memo which laid out their priorities in addressing the homelessness crisis.

"It is the most tangible and impactful program we have in the city to divert people from homelessness," Lynch said.

Angie Hart, the program's coordinator, told the committee Thursday that they spent more than $170,000 in August alone supporting families.

"Without a doubt, it makes a difference. If you have that downpayment money and, the issue around the stigma of being evicted, this may be a viable resource to move someone to a better state and have more stability," Hart said. "It's a lifeline."

Hart said the Family Crisis Fund may be at risk of running out of money in December.

Angie Hart
Angie Hart

Lynch said she would not support a proposed city law that fails to include new funding for the program.

"If we don't get that additional cash funding in there, we're going to hold that paper. We cannot. We cannot. It is that critical," Lynch said.

Deshazor said she does not have a timeline yet on when an ordinance (city law) will be proposed to the council for its consideration and approval. She said the city is still working on finalizing contracts.

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