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Richmond's unsheltered population grows by 120% in 1 year: 'We need to do better'

Stephanie Lynch: 'It's heartbreaking, but sadly not shocking or surprising to me'
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Posted at 6:16 PM, Mar 09, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- Non-profit advocates and city leaders said they weren't surprised by data that shows the number of unsheltered people in the Richmond metro has significantly increased over the past year.

Donna Hobson, who spent 25 years in a cycle of homelessness and addiction, now spends hours every week on the streets serving the region's most vulnerable.

She said she sees herself in the people she helps.

“Once upon a time, that was my story because of addiction, and I found myself on the street," Hobson said. “I was in and out of treatment, in and out of jail, leaving home, being in the streets, leaving my children."

Donna Hobson and reporter Tyler Layne
Donna Hobson and reporter Tyler Layne

She described those years as a "war" in which it was "you against the world." 

Through her group "Give a Sista a Purse," she delivers necessities to homeless people, many of whom live in encampments and the woods. She said a concerning trend she's noticed, though, is a lack of permanent support systems.

“People are going from one agency to another, or one pop-up situation to another, is what I'm gathering," Hobson said. "So, a lot of people are fearful because they don't know, from week to week, the stability of their housing.”

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New data collected by Homeward through a point-in-time count in January revealed 690 people in Central Virginia are currently experiencing homelessness. That figure is just 1% lower than the point-in-time count from last winter.

However, there was a 121% increase in the number of people staying in unsheltered conditions such as the outdoors or cars. That figure jumped from 85 last January to 188 this January.

It's the highest number of unsheltered people in 15 years. Homeward cited a lack of affordable housing and low rental vacancy rates as contributing factors.

Richmond City Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch.
Richmond City Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch.

“It's heartbreaking, but sadly not shocking or surprising to me," said Richmond City Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch.

Lynch said, in addition to the reasons listed by Homeward, the end of the pandemic-era eviction moratorium and increasing rent prices are playing a role in the increasing homelessness.

"Even though we have made substantial investments in our homeless services continuum, certainly better than we've ever done in the history of our city, we are still fighting a 500-pound gorilla," Lynch said.

"Is the city doing enough?” reporter Tyler Layne asked.

"I think from a funding perspective, we can confidently say yes. We are allocating more funding than we ever have," Lynch responded. “Here's the thing. We've historically underfunded it, and we did not have a system in place to prepare and to be prepared for the onslaught of evictions and just sheer number of families who are struggling financially to afford a place to live."

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Mayor Levar Stoney set aside more than $34 for the Department of Housing and Community Development in his proposed 2024 budget. His proposal aims to increase the number of permanent supportive housing units and emergency shelter beds, as well as enhance affordable housing options for low-income residents.

Additionally, the mayor would like to use $1.75 million for a year-round 24/7 emergency shelter. Currently, the city does not have one.

Right now, the City of Richmond has a capacity of 160 overnight beds between three inclement weather shelters, which is short of the total capacity of 190 beds originally expected.

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The city was supposed to have opened four locations this winter season, but delays persist with the fourth location at 5th Street Baptist Church. A city spokesperson said they're still working to finalize a contract, but there is no timeline for when it could eventually open.
Lynch said the city has now developed standard operating procedures for its shelters to improve the quality of services.

"There's not an official central bed registry as I had previously called for, but there is a mechanism for communicating with each other on an hourly or every two-hour basis on the number of available beds so that folks know where to go and which shelter has available bed space," Lynch said.

Meanwhile, Hobson said she's frustrated the city didn't succeed in opening all of its shelters.

“We, as a community, need to do better. We have people that have just been pushed to the wayside," Hobson said.

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As someone who lived with untreated mental health challenges for decades, she said addressing mental health must go hand-in-hand in addressing the housing crisis.

"My philosophy is, if you give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day. But if you teach him how to fish, he'll eat for the rest of his life," she said.

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