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Advocates Worry As Richmond Safety Net Shelter Closes

City Hall
A safety net shelter in the Richmond region that has provided shelter to those struggling with homelessness during the pandemic is set to close on April 14, a decision that's led advocates to question city officials and homeless service providers. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Earlier this year, Jenny Aghomo got a call from her daughter who works at a Starbucks in Carytown.

Her daughter noticed a car that sat in the parking lot for nearly a year. A man, who Aghomo later learned is named Steven, was living in the vehicle in the middle of winter.

“Of course, then I started thinking about it and worrying about it,” Aghomo said.

Aghomo drove to Starbucks to bring the man a blanket. When she arrived, she found a car that wouldn’t start and windows that wouldn’t roll up.

“I told him, ‘I know some people, [Councilwoman] Stephanie Lynch being one of them, and if I can get you some help, would you want that?’ And he said ‘Yes,’” Aghomo said.

Seven weeks later, Steven has spent nearly every night at the city’s safety net shelter, which is being run out of a Days Inn in South Richmond during the pandemic. But that shelter will close on April 14.

Community advocates like Aghomo say they’re concerned that the 50-100 people that have been staying in the safety net shelter each night will have few options when it closes. They argue city officials and homeless service providers aren’t doing enough to ensure people have access to case managers and other resources to avoid ending up back on the streets.

“It shouldn’t be this difficult to find another shelter bed or to get job training,” Aghomo said. “To me, it’s like that’s why there’s this perpetual cycle of homelessness in our city. Things aren’t getting solved, they’re just getting a band-aid on it until next year.”

The nonprofit Homeward currently operates the region’s safety net shelter, as well as another non-congregate motel shelter program. The organization was tapped by the city to open the shelters in response to the pandemic and Richmond’s decision to raze an encampment near the Annie E. Giles Community Center. At the time, traditional shelter operators like Salvation Army and Caritas were reducing capacity to ensure sanitation and social distancing.

While the city’s safety net shelter historically only opens during severe weather events, Homeward made the decision to open it nightly starting in January. But Kelly King Horne, Homeward’s director, said it wasn’t supposed to be any type of permanent housing.

“It’s a seasonal shelter, so it’s additional capacity during a high-need season, which for us is winter,” King Horne said.

Some people who sought services at the safety net shelter have gotten access to longer-term shelter, King Horne says. Some were transferred to Homeward’s non-congregate shelter at another motel, where residents are given their own room. That program has prioritized people who are most at-risk during the pandemic: seniors, people with underlying health conditions, and families with children.

King Horne said people living at the non-congregate shelter have access to case managers and volunteers who could help them put together a housing plan. Data collected by Homeward and first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch shows that of the more than 1,800 people who stayed in the shelter since last March, 24% have exited to permanent housing and another 10% were referred out to another homeless service provider. Twenty percent of the residents are still living in hotels and the outcome is unknown for 46% of people in the program.

The support services provided to people who enter the safety net shelter program, meanwhile, are more minimal.

“It’s a light-touch shelter,” King Horne said. “We try to connect people to other resources, but it’s not resource intense like other programs.”

What that’s looked like on the ground, advocates say, is residents that are being provided with a list of contact information for other nonprofits. It’s up to the residents to make the call.

Advocates have argued that simply providing a contact sheet isn’t providing real resources or case management. Tracey Hardney-Scott, housing chair for the Richmond NAACP, said requiring clients to follow up is difficult, especially when many have disabilities or mental illnesses.

“If you’re in that situation, just imagine being homeless and then someone is giving you all of these directions on who to call and where to go,” Hardney-Scott said. “We know how annoying it is when we call a business and we have to keep pressing numbers for a phone tree. So I can only imagine.”

In a tense exchange at a recent Richmond City Council meeting, Council Member Stephanie Lynch pushed back on the assertion by Homeward’s Michael Rogers that all residents in the safety net shelter have access to case managers and will have a ‘next steps’ plan when the program closes on April 14.

“When we say these things, we are laying out an expectation,” Lynch said. “This has not been the reality that I have seen on the ground. I think many have been left without information and without a housing plan.”

King Horne told VPM that Homeward and it’s partners are working hard to connect safety net shelter residents with resources, but that they have “never, ever been in a position to guarantee that we can serve everyone who needs our help.”

Following the safety net shelter closing on April 14, Homeward plans to convene a Seasonal Shelter Taskforce that will look at where the pandemic-response programs succeeded, and where they felt short.

Hardney-Scott said she’ll be on the task force, and she hopes to get past the “wordplay” by bringing advocates and service providers to the same table.

“People are so afraid of being told that they aren’t doing such a great job, that they rather try to fake that they are doing a great job,” she said. “We have to get beyond people being defensive as if they’re being personally attacked, when it’s really about what can we do better.