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During COVID, Richmond Moves Cold Weather Shelter To Hotel

a group of tents at the now-removed homeless encampment near Mosby Court
Homeless service providers began utilizing hotels for shelter in March, when an encampment near the Annie Giles Center was cleared out by city officials. (Roberto Roldan/VPM)

With temperatures dipping below 40 degrees tonight, Richmond plans to open its emergency cold weather shelter.

In the past, the city provided mats at the Annie Giles Center for anyone needing shelter as the weather turned cold. Everyone would sleep and congregate in a large shared room. Now, the city will provide rooms at a hotel on Midlothian Turnpike.

Kelly King Horne, director of the region’s homeless services coordinator Homeward, said this new non-congregate model follows best practices for sheltering people during the pandemic.

“There’s access to sanitation, having beds, meals are provided, and then we have more staffing,” she said. 

People facing homelessness can register for a bed and get directions to the hotel shelter near the Chesterfield County border by calling the Homeless Crisis Hotline. To accommodate the new program, Homeward is using federal CARES Act funds to extend the hotline’s hours to 9 p.m. The hotline will also answer calls on the weekends now. 

The hotel is on the GRTC bus line, but transportation to the shelter will be arranged on a case-by-case basis. 

Horne said while this new system is best suited to the pandemic, it’s also more expensive than the city’s previous shelter plans. 

“This is a one year program, so we aren’t saying this is how it’s going to be forever and ever,” Horne said. “Everything is really centered around COVID response.”

These changes build off of the model homeless service providers put in place in March, when people were moved out of an encampment next to the Annie Giles Center. The “Camp Cathy” residents were provided shelter at hotels and motels. 

That has now expanded to a comprehensive non-congregate shelter program where people facing homelessness can better take safety precautions during the pandemic. There are currently about 90 households at the hotel, where they receive COVID-19 testing, three delivered meals a day and their own room. Those most at-risk for contracting the virus and families with young children receive priority.

During a cold weather event, service providers are expanding capacity by utilizing a second hotel property and doubling people up in rooms. Anyone entering the cold weather shelter will be screened for COVID-19, but not tested like the longer-term residents. 

The point of the shelter is not to warehouse people, but to provide a pathway to more permanent housing, Horne said. Case managers and service providers who can work with residents staff the hotel. 

“When we first opened, we had a lot more people in the hotels,” she said. “We’ve been trying to streamline and help people move through the system. We’re constantly trying to help people move on to the next thing, whether it’s another shelter bed or housing.”

Richmond City Council Member Stephanie Lynch, who has worked closely with homeless service providers, said she was happy the city got a plan in place before the brunt of winter hit and hopes it's a model they can use moving forward.

 “It was not a humane space by any stretch of the imagination,” Lynch said of the cold weather shelter at the Annie Giles Center. “I do really appreciate that we’ve gotten with the program and moved to a non-congregate model, because that is certainly a more dignified way.”

Lynch said moving forward, the city and nonprofits need to make sure people know where the new shelter is and that they need to call the Homeless Crisis Line for intake.

“We need to get the information where individuals experiencing homeless tend to go,” she said. “Emergency rooms, law enforcement certainly, bus stops would be a great place to post this number.”

Anyone seeking access to cold weather shelter or within three days of losing their housing are encouraged to call the Homeless Crisis Line at (804) 972-0813.