RICHMOND, Va. -- Frustrated advocates who volunteer to support Richmond's homeless population joined forces Monday to demand the City of Richmond declare a homelessness state of emergency.
They made their request in front of an abandoned church in South Richmond.
A homeless woman, known as Ms. Linda, died outside that church last week.
While her official cause of death is unknown, those who knew her said she was beaten down by the day-to-day realities of being homeless.
Ms. Linda died just one block away from a homeless shelter that the city of Richmond closed in April.
Police said they did not find anything suspicious related to her death.
“We are now taking this public stand and sounding the alarm for a call to action," Dr. Arlene Simmons, with the group RVA Boots on the Ground, said.
In grief, Simmons and more than a dozen other local organizations, who volunteer every day to provide meals, water, and other necessities to people, made a plea for city leaders to do more to support those experiencing homelessness.
"We must help these children and help these parents, help these working parents, help those that are on disability, help those that are seniors. We must help them somehow. They are starving," she said. "We have run out of food because we have been trying to feed just those that we have come across, but there are so many more that we have not even been able to touch."
The issue is getting worse across the region, according to the data.
The latest count from Homeward showed that at any given time, 690 people in Central Virginia are experiencing homelessness.
That number is consistent with last year's count.
However, the number of people staying in unsheltered conditions, such as cars or tents, jumped by 121% since last year, reaching a 15-year high.
In Richmond, the city closed its seasonal weather shelters on April 15 with no permanent year-round shelter in sight.
“Now the shelters are closed. Where do you expect them to go? Where do you expect them to stay?” one advocate with Tabernacle of Praise said. “We want the government to look at these people, feel it from your heart. This is not politics we’re trying to do. It’s about saving lives.”
Richmond City Councilmember Stephanie Lynch (5thDistrict), who chairs the council's education and human services committee and has been an outspoken proponent for increasing the city's homelessness services, joined the activists Monday.
"When I drive down Midlothian Turnpike, Hull Street, Richmond Highway and I see families, actual families, with children camped out on a median lot. Last night, folks, I saw a family with a sign up 'diapers, milk, anything will do,'" Lynch said. “We have failed them, and it is not a money problem.”
Lynch said the council appropriated about $4.5 million in homelessness services this past year so that four community partners could operate weather shelters, although one never opened its doors.
Now, Lynch is asking Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney's administration for the results of their investment.
For example, she said the partners were given funding for case management so that when families left the seasonal shelters, they had housing or shelter placements.
"We have asked, 'Where is the budget money?'" Lynch said.
“And we have passed resolutions, not one, not two, but three, asking the administration to dedicate a 24/7 inclement weather cold blue shelter, whatever you want to call it, but a roof over people's heads," she continued.
The year-round shelter would serve as an entry point into the regional shelter system and add 50 beds to the network. Currently, there are 265 year-round beds, and those in a crisis can access those resources by calling the Homeless Connection Line.
"We all know, anyone that is doing this work, that a phone line ain't cutting it," Lynch said as advocates applauded. "A phone line that no one answers on the other line ain't cutting it."
Lynch said she has the following demands:
- For the city to reopen the inclement weather shelters
- For different operating partners to offer proper case management to homeless families
- For all families who were not registered into the regional homeless database to be immediately registered
“We’re asking for the promises that were made to be promises kept, because right now, they are promises broken," she said.
Before Monday's press conference, CBS 6 asked Mayor Stoney for a response to the non-profits calling for a homelessness state of emergency to be declared.
"We've already declared an emergency on the housing crisis. Homelessness is a symptom of a lack of homes for individuals, but also we have to continue to invest in behavioral and mental health as well. And we're doing that. We're doing that in this recent budget that will be passed tonight by City Council, investing in the root causes of homelessness, and it's my hope that we all will continue to work together to keep a roof over peoples' head and food on the table," Stoney said.
Monday night, the council is set to adopt a budget that includes about $1.75 million for a year-round shelter.
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