RICHMOND, Va. -- As extreme heat continues to take a toll on Central Virginia, some members of vulnerable populations have nowhere to find relief during the night.
After plans to open a 24/7 shelter in time for the winter season failed, the City of Richmond has relaunched efforts to bring the project to fruition.
Amid record inflation, low supply of housing, and skyrocketing rent prices, the homelessness crisis only appears to be growing.
“It’s sad. There’s a good amount of people," said Caitlin Foster. “They’re raising the rent on a lot of the places, and some people lose their job. There’s nothing you can do. It can happen to anyone.”
Foster's concerns are backed by data. According to the non-profit Homeward, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the region has increased by 30% compared to pre-pandemic times.
“58% of Virginia renters are in fear of eviction. We have ended our rent relief program, and Richmond's current rental vacancy rate stands at only 1.1%. That means there's no housing available in the city of Richmond, so that's all a perfect storm," said Richmond's 5th District Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch.
For about a year, Lynch said she has been pushing for the city to open a permanent shelter that can host those in need at all hours of the day and night. As it stands now, the city provides cooling stations at some locations, but services are only available during the day.
So where do people without homes go to sleep?
“Sadly, a lot of our folks are winding up in the emergency room. They are winding up in jail," Lynch said. "We're doing everything that we can, but I remain concerned that it's not enough and we've got to keep trying harder."
This past year, the city operated programs for inclement weather shelters and non-congregate shelters through hotels, but those programs expired in April.
To follow, the city had tapped the non-profit Commonwealth Catholic Charities to renovate its Shockoe Valley facility into a 24/7 shelter by November, but the project could not be completed. A spokesperson for the organization, Katie Dillon, did not provide specifics as to why the initiatives failed.
"Despite our very best efforts, extended delays made it impossible to complete the project in time for the cold weather season. Given the urgency of finding a space for use this winter, we released the funds committed to the project back to the city so a suitable alternative can be found," Dillon said.
Back at square one, the city opened applications this week to award $3 million, pulled from grants and federal COVID-19 relief funding to one or more organizations to operate an overnight inclement weather shelter for two years.
The facility would operate 24/7 between November 2022-April 2023 and November 2023-April 2024, as well as during severe weather events and extreme heat in the summer.
Additionally, the shelter(s) would provide 150 beds, two meals a day, outreach activities, and counseling services. The city aims to open the shelter by November.
More than one provider is eligible to receive shelter funding, and strict requirements are in place that can be read here.
Petula Burks, head of communications for city departments, said providers will have to report usage of the funds weekly.
"All providers are required to follow the regulations of the applicable funding sources and HCD (Housing and Community Development Department) will monitor and make periodic onsite visits," Burks said.
While Lynch applauded the city's efforts to address homelessness, she said the inclement weather shelter is just a first step.
“I’m just frustrated because I saw this across the bow years ago," Lynch said.
Lynch has been advocating for a permanent housing resource center, which she said has been implemented in other Virginia localities.
She said the center would offer year-round shelter, case management services, one-on-one assistance, and connections to employment, child care, transportation and more.
“I truly believe that Richmond, being the number two spot in the country for evictions, should have a very comprehensive holistic model to provide those types of services," Lynch said. "When you're coming into a shelter, you need a lot of that wraparound support. That is good case management, and we've had no actual true practice of case management. It's 10 to 20 hours a week initially, it's assessing folks for everything that they need, and trying to be tactical and draw out a roadmap from how to get that person through the system and to a place of stability."
She added, "If you had systems of care around every community, high needs communities and certainly around the homeless community, you would find that we could solve poverty, and we can help transition people into a greater stability and greater wellness in a matter of a year or two."
Homeward said a number of non-profits already offer overnight shelter to account for about 350 emergency beds. To put the need into perspective, the regional shelter system served nearly 3,000 people last year.
If you are experiencing homelessness, please call the Homeless Connection Line at 804-972-0813. More information can be found here.