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As Winter Sets In, Richmond’s Emergency Shelter Capacity Stretched Thin

homeless and hungry sign on cardboard
61-year-old Murphy Rucker ended up on the streets after being a caregiver to a partner who died from cancer. He's hoping to get into a transitional housing program when his retirement begins in April. (Photo C. Komp)

In Richmond, there isn’t enough shelter capacity to serve residents who don’t have any place to sleep. Efforts failed earlier this year to open a shelter with wrap around services in the Manchester neighborhood. But a measure expected to come before City Council on Monday December 17 may help create a roadmap to address these challenges. In our series Where We Live, WCVE’s Catherine Komp reports.

Murphy Rucker is 61. For most of his life, he worked in construction, including carpentry, roofing and framing. A few years ago, he lived in the Randolph neighborhood with his girlfriend in a two bedroom home. Then she got sick with cancer.

“I had to quit whatever work I was doing to take care of her and I watched her go from 160 pounds down to 80 pounds. And then when she passed away right there I couldn't afford the mortgage on the house,” said Rucker.

Rucker ended up on the streets. Two years later, he’s hoping to make it to next April when his retirement kicks in. “Wintertime is the roughest,” he said. “I was out here when it was like two degrees. Even two sleeping bags don't do you whole lot of good.”


Residents used to sleep under the canal walk until the City blocked it off. (Photo C. Komp)
Residents used to sleep under the canal walk until the City blocked it off. (Photo C. Komp)

He’s tried the emergency shelters, but he says he was treated like a child. Conditions can be cramped and unsanitary, he says, with just a yoga mat on a concrete floor.  I asked him, what could the City do better help people like him?

“All these all these abandoned buildings, warehouses and whatever, they could turn them into apartments and offer some kind of incentive for people that’s on the streets,” said Rucker. “Give them a base they work out of, take showers, have a place to stay ‘till they can get on their feet, you know, start paying rent.”

And says Rucker, they could put homeless individuals to work fixing up the building. Several others without housing echoed this idea. While the empty buildings might be privately owned or expensive to turn into a shelter - these residents see a dichotomy: there’s wealth and resources in Richmond, yet homelessness still exists. And Rucker says there’s a lot of other people two paychecks away from being homeless themselves.

Richmond’s Shelter Capacity
Year round emergency shelters in Richmond currently accommodate about 250 people. That number will drop to about 225 in early 2019, when CARITAS closes its family shelter to focus on building a new recovery center for women. (The CARITAS Center will support about 120 women in recovery and have another 36 beds for women needing emergency shelter.)

When temperatures drop below 40 degrees, another 90 to 100 people can stay at the City’s overflow shelter, which it recently moved to the Conrad Center near the jail. Several other shelters in the area focus on survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and serve around 45 people.

The point-in-time count of homeless individuals in the Richmond area shows this isn’t enough. In the last winter census, at least 100 people were sleeping outside. That number rose to at least 185 for the July 2018 census. Advocates say the summer increase is partially because the City’s hypothermia shelter is closed.

To get into most shelters, you need to first call the homeless crisis line - (804) 972-0813. It’s staffed by area nonprofits and managed by Homeward, an organization that coordinates homeless services. The nonprofit served more than 9100 homeless individuals between January and November 2018. In November alone, the hotline received more than 4200 calls. That includes people seeking resources other than emergency shelter space, but gives an idea of the volume of Richmond residents in need of stable housing.

Hotline specialists assess the residents’ needs and help route them to services and available shelter space. Typically, that doesn’t happen in a day, says Beth Vann-Turnbull with Housing Families First. It could take weeks to get in.

“And that's I think something that's really shocking to people,” said Vann-Turnbull. “Also the homeless crisis line is a Monday through Friday 8:00 to 6:00 line and there is not going to be a resource person to talk to in the evening or on the weekends, unless it's a domestic violence situation.”

When there’s not shelter space available, hotline staffers help residents come up with a temporary solution. Vann-Turnbull says they’ll ask if there’s a friend or family member they could stay with if they helped with some expenses, like groceries.

“It's really helping people troubleshoot and use the assets they have to stay into housing as long as they can while other options are looked for, because there's not something tonight in many cases which is sad and really surprising to people, but right now it's the reality.”

Housing Families First runs one of the emergency shelters for single women and families with minor children. There are 30 beds for families with minor children in any family composition: single moms, single dads, two parent families, grandparents. They’re also the only accessible shelter for women or families with disabilities. Clients also get their own room with a locking door.

“We are proud of our model that we feel really honors a family's dignity. It allows parents to be in charge of their family in a real way,” said Vann-Turnbull.

Responding to Shelter Shortcomings
For those without minor children, it’s harder to stick together. Outside the Richmond Public Library, several young adults without housing said the current shelter system splits them apart.

“They don't realize when people are on the streets their spouse is their support system. So you’re basically ripping this support system right from up under them and telling them you got to do it on your own,” said one woman who preferred not to give her name. Beth Vann-Turnbull says these criticisms are valid.

“We really do have some great quality shelters here, but they're not perfect and they don't meet every household composition and they don't meet all the transportation needs. It's a crisis response and it does not meet everybody's needs and we continue to work and try to do better but I see where they're coming from and if we had more shelter that was low-barrier and more welcoming, and there is more coming online, hopefully that would help,” said Vann-Turnbull.

Last summer, community members in Manchester pushed back at a proposal to move the City’s cold weather shelter to a former church building that could accommodate expanded services like meals, showers and job training. “We didn't do the job that we needed to do to educate the community,” Councilmember Ellen Robertson told WCVE. She says the experience led to her ordinance requiring the Mayor’s office to create a Homeless Strategic Plan.

“When I was aware of the fact that the City of Richmond does not have zoning to support housing for the homeless without coming through a special use permit, I felt then we need to have a well-designed plan,” she said.


Overall homelessness is down, but chronic homeless is up. (Source NAEH)
Overall homelessness is down, but chronic homeless is up. (Source NAEH)

The ordinance calls for zoning recommendations that don’t make it “overly burdensome” to develop shelters or transitional housing for the homeless. It also calls for an inventory of current shelters and housing, goals to expand shelters and housing, and potential locations for shelters, housing and services that use a continuum of care model. The ordinance requires the Mayor’s Chief Administrative Officer to submit the plan to Council no later than October 1, 2019. Councilmembers Agelasto, Addison and Gray are co-patrons and the Mayor backs the measure, which Council is expected to take up during their final meeing of the year.

“The Mayor supports Councilwoman Robertson’s ordinance and strongly supports the creation of a strategic plan to address homelessness and the unsheltered that includes zoning policies for emergency shelters, transitional and supportive housing,” said Press Secretary Jim Nolan in an email. “He looks forward to council working with administration staff to address any questions or needs they have in developing and implementing the plan.”

Funding is a concern, said Shunda Giles, Director of the Richmond Department of Social Services. “As there will be a fiscal impact to create a strategic plan, it is important that funding is identified to support this mandate,” she said. Giles added they “would hope Council incorporates some fluidity into the ordinance to adjust to the date, should the plan recommend the same.”

Robertson’s ordinance also calls for a planning process that includes residents, as well as state, regional, and local organizations; and an update of the Homeless Strategic Plan every two years. Robertson says she visits the tent encampments around Richmond, sharing coffee made in percolators. She even used her own money to put a homeless couple up at a hotel. She says America is too rich of a country to fail in providing the fundamental need of decent shelter and a place to call home.

“We just need to think more strategically long-term as to what is really happening with housing and I'm hopeful that not only are we going to do a homeless strategic plan for the City of Richmond, but we're going to do an effective affordable housing plan for the City of Richmond,” said Robertson. “We've invested money in that, but we are nowhere near where we need to be.”

Correction: The original version of this story overstated the number of year-round emergency shelter beds open to the general population at 275. The article and audio have been updated to 250.