RICHMOND, Va. -- Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said he is "absolutely proud" of how his administration has addressed the city's homelessness crisis, as he promised new funding that aims to prevent people from ending up on the streets.
In recent years, the mayor's administration has been criticized by homeless people, advocates, and council members for what they believed were inadequate resources for the most vulnerable.
CBS 6 has extensively covered and amplified the voices of those experiencing homelessness who have all shared similar concerns about the lack of assistance:
- “I don't care if you do a 24-hour shelter all year round. Just get us off the streets. I'm scared," said a woman named Geneva in April.
- "It's a struggle. It's hard especially when you have kids, because I've been calling around to shelters, and it's hard to even get into shelters with kids," said Rachell Fleming in April.
- "What they need to do is have more shelters for people to stay at night," said a man named Matt in July.
The city has experienced major delays with its plans to expand year-round and emergency shelter, and in the meantime, lacked capacity to shelter people during weather events.
CBS 6 has covered them, including the 2022 arctic blast when the city failed to open all its inclement weather shelters in time for the freezing temperatures.
"We are failing. We are failing in that capacity," said Councilwoman Ann-Frances Lambert at the time.
And more recently-- Tropical Storm Ophelia when homeless individuals said they were turned away from City Hall which opened as a "place of last refuge."
"We have been here not once, not twice, not three times, four times, five times. This is the seventh time," said Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch during a meeting last week. "We have all been in a predicament where we are facing a very serious weather event that could cause harm to the unhoused, very medically vulnerable communities, and we did not have a plan for it."
CBS 6 reporter Tyler Layne asked Mayor Stoney to respond to the concerns about his administration's track record.
"Are you proud of the support that you've provided to the homeless population up until now?" Layne asked.
"Absolutely proud," Stoney responded. “You look at our locality and compare it to any locality in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and I can guarantee you to the penny that we invest more in individuals who are experiencing homelessness. Now, here's the thing. There's no lack of compassion from this administration, but there are times when we lack capacity, and that's what we're dealing with here.”
Stoney's administration has presented a proposal that will increase the region's number of year-round beds by 100. That's a 67% increase in beds for families and a 43% increase in beds for single adults, according to the city leaders.
Additionally, the plan calls for inclement weather beds to stay operational all year, since currently, they're only in place during the winter season. While the plans are expected to launch on December 1, the city has identified a location that can rapidly be stood up in the case a weather emergency threatens the area between now and then.
In a memo dated October 2, Stoney told the City Council that he would allocate an additional $800,000 for the Family Crisis Fund which meets (and goes beyond) the City Council's request in July for the administration to allocate $750,000 for that purpose.
“When folks are struggling, folks always want to think about what program they need, what other programs do they need. A lot of times, they just need a little bit more money," Stoney said.
The program was temporarily established during the pandemic. With the nonprofit HumanKind as an administrator, it allows for direct payments to cover rent, hotel rooms, utility bills, and other expenses in an effort to prevent families from becoming homeless or help homeless people regain housing stability.
"Fast forward to 2023, you see that we still have a serious need out there of folks who are struggling post-pandemic. And so, we saw that we were burning through dollars a little bit faster than we thought," Stoney said.
CBS 6 has spoken to some individuals, out of the 500 total Richmonders, who have benefited from the program. They described it as a lifeline.
“We’re not out in the streets sleeping in my truck, so it’s definitely been a godsend," said Richard Belyeu in August.
Belyeu said the program helped temporarily place him and his children in a hotel room when he lost his job and subsequently his home. The period of time in which they were sheltered allowed Belyeu to apply for jobs, search for affordable housing and work with case managers that could connect him to additional resources.
Funds for the program were at risk of running out this December, according to a September presentation by HumanKind's program manager Angie Hart. While the program spent about $170,000 on families in the month of August, a monthly run rate could fluctuate based on the needs of the community.
The new funding accounts for 10% of the city's 2023 fiscal year surplus, according to the mayor's memo.
The mayor's memo also came after Councilmember Lynch threatened not to support the administration's ordinance on increased homeless services unless it included new funding for the Family Crisis Fund.
"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 during a September committee meeting.
Stoney said he anticipates the additional money will help the program operate through the end of the 2024 fiscal year which ends in July.
When asked whether the Family Crisis Fund would become a permanent fixture, Stoney said, "This obviously will be a priority amongst many members of City Council who support this program. I'm glad that we have roughly a consensus, and also, we have support from our constituents... So, when will you have a program with that type of support, it's a good chance you'll see it in next year's budget too."
Lynch said she has personally connected her constituents to the program who ultimately found success with it. She said the funding is "truly a blessing" for people who otherwise would have "absolutely no safety net."
Last week, during a tense public safety committee meeting following the fallout from the city's response to shelter the homeless during Tropical Storm Ophelia, Lynch suggested the mayor's administration did not feel it was their "moral obligation" to shelter the homeless during emergencies.
Asked for a response, Stoney said, "I love Ms. Lynch. She's a friend, but we disagree on some issues. I have to look at the priorities for the entire city. And you look at where we prioritize homelessness and affordable housing, it's up there to the top. No one can dispute that. Now, Ms. Lynch may want us to invest more. We can always talk about that."
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