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Pandemic Highlights Systemic Issues, Advocates Say

Camping tents used by people without homes
Cathy's Camp on March 16 - the day before they started making arrangements to move people out. (Photo: Roberto Roldan/VPM News)

A week after Virginia’s state of emergency declaration, Richmond city officials demolished Cathy’s Camp, a tent community outside the overflow shelter in Shockoe Valley. 

“That allowed us to get the resources to say, ‘OK, this has now turned into a public health issue, we need to move people right away,’” said Reggie Gordon, deputy chief administrative officer for the city’s human services department.  

The camp was set up in November 2019 by Rhonda Sneed, and her group Blessing Warriors RVA. At one point, more than 100 people were staying there. 

“They were working together,” Sneed said. “They were secure in where they were every night.”

There were some safety issues at Cathy’s Camp, including a flood that Mark Robinson with the Richmond Times Dispatch reported sent a handful of people to the hospital

Following the demolition, residents were spread out across the city, and some accepted temporary hotel stays offered by service providers. Jeff Butler was one of them; service providers originally sheltered him and others from the camp at a Rodeway Inn. But he said that all changed about two weeks in when he left for a doctor’s appointment.

“When I got back, they told me that I had to pack up everything. They already took everyone else out of here before I got back,” Butler said. 

Butler was moved to a downtown Richmond hotel. He said he was tested for COVID-19 and it came back negative. He added that Sneed continues to bring him food and that hotel staff have been helpful — but Butler doesn’t know how long this will last. 

“I talked to the manager here and she gave me a little job to keep my room,” Butler said. “I have nowhere else to go.”

In a letter to Mayor Levar Stoney, attorneys with the Virginia Poverty Law and Legal Aid Justice Centers raised alarm about the city’s response to Cathy’s Camp, including putting residents into “woefully substandard” hotels and failing to have an adequate plan to help them get into more stable housing. They also cited CDC guidelines cautioning against clearing encampments.

“For most people, [encampments are] not the best option long term, but they're going to be part of the picture and the community’s response to homelessness,” LAJC Attorney Pat Levy Lavelle told VPM. 

Advocates recommend that the city commit to expanding its homeless supportive services, and come up with policies and best practices for dealing with encampments. 

“We’re asking the city to identify public land that would be suitable for the creation of new encampments,” Levy-Lavelle said. “And also commit to not interfere with private property owners that are willing to make their land available for that purpose — and certainly not interfere with private entities who wish to provide services to homeless people.”

Jacob Snow manages supportive housing and homeless services programs for the nonprofit Commonwealth Catholic Charities. He said the initial focus was to get as many people housed as possible.

“It was kind of what was available, but also we had worked with some hotels before,” Snow said. “At first we started contacting the ones we knew about and then, if they were booked or didn't have enough space, going to just calling, you know, any hotel in the region that seemed like it would be a good fit.”

He says their criteria wasn’t very limited — just any hotel that would accommodate large numbers of unsheltered people, and that were OK with having counselors on-site to provide services. But after the initial wave of getting people into shelter, Snow said they started refining those placements.

“We had to take things into consideration like how far those places were from where people could go find food or have food brought to them, how close it was to medical facilities,” Snow said. “You also have people who needed to be closer to resources to get mental health ... which places were on the bus line.”

About 100 people are still staying in hotels, according to Homeward, the organization that’s in charge of the city’s homeless services. Homeward would not disclose to VPM how many were former Cathy’s Camp residents. 

Since mid-March, service providers have transitioned 160 others from hotels into emergency shelters and permanent housing. An additional 40 people were placed in the Rapid Rehousing Program.

Slides: Homeward

The CDC-issued guidance on homeless encampments and COVID-19 was released the day before the city began demolishing Cathy’s Camp. It states, “If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.”  Hotels fall under the category of “individual housing options” if there are separate rooms and bathrooms. 

For those who remain on the streets, it’s hard to stay safe according to Sneed. She said in the meantime, she’s doing what she can.

“We take gallons of soapy water and gallons of plain water around so they can wash their hands,” Sneed said. “You want people to wash their hands. But where?”

Sneed said she’s trying to set up stationary handwashing stations, like in Atlanta, Louisville and Pensacola

Kelly King Horne, Homeward’s executive director, said the city and service providers’ approach has been to transition people to temporary and then long-term housing, as opposed to implementing measures specifically for people who are living on the street. 

“We will ask the coordinated outreach team to assess whether handwashing stations would be needed and, if so, where,” King Horne said. “Workers distribute nutrition kits and hygiene supplies, including masks and hand sanitizer, to clients who are unsheltered.”

Dr. Patricia Cook, chief medical officer with Daily Planet Health Services, said they’re working with Homeward to help isolate and treat any homeless individuals who do test positive.

“Oftentimes the treatment for COVID-19 is to shelter at home and isolate at home and do symptomatic care. And if you don't have a home, obviously you don't have a place that you can recover in comfort,” Cook said.

Cook said there have been at least 15 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the city’s homeless population. It’s unclear how many have recovered, but she said none have been admitted to the ICU. 

“The pandemic shines a light on a disparity that has been there for years — people who don't have access to care; people who don’t have the ability to stay home when they're sick because of financial pressures,” Cook said. “Unless we’re taking care of everyone, this is going to cause the whole community to become sick.”

Cook said Daily Planet has been testing up-to 40 people a day — not all of them homeless. She added that they have the staffing capacity to double that if necessary, but it all depends on the supply of personal protective equipment and testing materials. 

To help prevent the spread of COVID-19, shelters have adapted with mandatory medical screenings, frequent temperature checks and distant sleeping arrangements. Horne said shelters have also increased staffing to stay open 24/7. 

“A coming challenge will be the number of people who were on the edge or close to homelessness before the pandemic and now lost wages [have] put them over the edge into homelessness,” King Horne said. 

So far, Homeward has received $350,000 from the City of Richmond and the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and $192,450 in federal CARES Act funding through Henrico County. King Horne said the money will be used to pay for hotels, increased shelter beds, a residential workforce program and financial support for people to get into stable housing. The organization has pending applications for more funding, anticipating the growing need for help.