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Resources for Richmond families who need housing can’t keep up with pandemic hike in homelessness, rising housing costs

entrance to building
The Salvation Army's office in Richmond's Monroe Ward. (Photo: Connor Scribner/VPM News)

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Jovan Burton as Jovan Burns, Beth Vann-Turnbull as Beth VanTunbell and the Partnership for Housing Affordability as the Partnership for Affordable Housing. We've have updated the story and apologize for the errors.

When Martin Hill’s 7-year-old son Cody was hospitalized in February 2020, he stayed home from work for two weeks to care for him. Though Cody eventually recovered, Hill lost his job and the pair soon found themselves without a home.

“With me sitting at home, my employer just let me go. Because they needed me and I couldn't be there….Things just started to fall apart,” Hill said. “I couldn't find work. I couldn't get back on my feet right away. So we wound up actually being in the streets.”

Hill and Cody spent ten days on the streets of Richmond before they found a local shelter with room to take them.

“Ten days just seemed like a lifetime trying to struggle everyday,” Hill said. “There was no help. I was trying to do the best that I could.”

Richmond is a ‘no guarantee bed community,’ meaning that people who find themselves living on the streets cannot necessarily count on or even expect to find somewhere safe like a shelter to lay their heads at night.

Faith Kallman is the director of development for Homeward, the lead agency that administers Richmond’s “Continuum of Care” to people experiencing homelessness in the city. She says that while they strive to respond to requests for help quickly, the resources simply aren’t present in the city to assist everyone who calls their Homeless Connection Hotline right away.

“The resources for people who are literally homeless are not always immediate,” Kallman said.

The hotline doesn’t operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Instead, people who reach out for help are evaluated to determine their vulnerability. How long they spend waiting to hear back depends on how vulnerable they are considered to be by the agencies who administer emergency housing in Richmond. That’s according to Beth Vann-Turnbull, executive director of another one of Richmond’s ‘Continuum of Care’ partners, Housing Families First.

“If a family is highly vulnerable, it's cold, they have a baby, there's somebody on oxygen in the household, they're going to be prioritized over somebody else,” Vann-Turnbull said. “So they may get shelter within a couple days, and somebody else who was equally homeless, but maybe not as vulnerable and has a better chance to be able to find a place on their own, it might be several weeks.”

This criteria should have prioritized Hill and Cody, but Hill says he thinks it took so long for him and his son to be placed somewhere safe because of delays caused by the pandemic.

“The process took a very long time because of the pandemic,” Hill said. “You had to have patience. There was no giving up. I couldn't give up, because, like I said, I'm a single dad. My son, I couldn't give up on him. I didn't want to give up on myself, but I couldn't give up on my son.”

According to Homeward’s Point In Time count, which attempts to estimate the number of homeless people in the Richmond area twice a year, there were 739 homeless people in the capital city in January 2022. 263 of those people were part of homeless families with children under the age of 18.

The homelessness rate in Richmond skyrocketed when the pandemic began; the number of families experiencing homelessness jumped 196% between July 2019 and July 2021, according to Homeward. Experts including Jovan Burton, executive director of the Partnership For Housing Affordability, say the region’s shortage of affordable housing is the primary driver of this increase.

“The supply issue was there beforehand. I think the difference now is that you had a lot of eviction protections during the pandemic,” Burton said. “It really showed us that our market pre-pandemic relied on evictions to effectively function quite heavily. And I think that's a big concern moving forward, because the demand remains incredibly high.”

The Partnership for Housing Affordability offers another phone-based resource for people facing housing instability. Anyone who isn’t on the streets yet but is facing the possibility of homelessness can call their Housing Resource Line to be connected with a broad range of resources that can provide intervention before a family loses their home.

Once someone is within three days of being homeless or literally living on the streets, they qualify for help through Homeward’s Homeless Connection Line. When individuals and families call that hotline, they speak with a diversion specialist trained to help them navigate homelessness resources in the city.

When he and Cody lost their home, Hill says they spent several weeks crashing on friends’ couches. But it wasn’t sustainable, so Hill turned to his son’s school system as a last ditch effort to access the aid his son is guaranteed under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal law that funds programs and resources for homeless students.

Under the act, homeless students have the right to remain in their school of origin and to receive free transportation to and from school. However when Hill requested aid from Cody’s school in Chesterfield, where they used to live, he says not only did they deny him help, they threatened to end his son’s academic career.

“When they found out that I was homeless and left, they actually tried to put my son out of that school because we were no longer in Chesterfield,” Hill said. “I had to fight and I found out… that they could not kick him out of school because he was homeless.”

Hill says it was crucial that his son remained in school while they were homeless. If he missed classes, Hill worried social services would take notice and take Cody away - or that he would face criminal charges.

“I cried many nights. Well, many days, put it that way. When my son was sleeping, I cried,” Hill said. “Because I just thought it was the end of the road.I thought I was gonna lose him. I thought there was no hope.”

In Virginia, all children between the ages of five and 18 must attend school every day. If they don’t, their parents could face a misdemeanor charge or a fine for violating their parental responsibility. Whether a parent can adequately house their child is also a factor the Virginia Department of Social Services considers when determining if a child should be separated from their family.

To keep his son, Hill said they would hide throughout the city, taking shifts at night to watch out for danger and finding free hotspots for Cody to attend virtual classes and do his homework during the day. Cody, who was in second grade at the time, struggled to keep up with his classmates.

“My son went through a lot. He went through a lot of stress,” Hill said. “It was affecting his schoolwork, his sleep, his appetite, everything. It took a while for him to feel safe.”

Hill knew that in order to access resources for himself and his son in the city, he had to keep his phone operational and charged. Hill says finding the funds and the access to keep his phone going was a huge challenge, one that many other homeless people are not able to afford.

“I had to borrow money from someone to keep my phone active so I could get these phone calls,” Hill said.

When he finally heard back from the hotline, Hill and Cody were told to go immediately to a non-congregate shelter. That shelter, which is currently operated by Commonwealth Catholic Charities, began in response to the pandemic and provides a limited number of homeless people temporary access to hotel rooms.

“That phone call [saying] we have to come into a motel, that was one of the craziest phone calls I've gotten. We were safe then,” Hill said.

But according to Burton, that shelter is funded by COVID relief funds, which won’t last forever.

Permanent resources

Housing Families First provides emergency housing specifically for families with children under the age of 18 in Richmond. The organization operates three programs designed to get homeless families back on their feet, including a shelter in Henrico called Hilliard House.

“We don't want this to be a place that people want to live for a long time and that their vision for their life shrinks to the size of the building. But we do want it to be welcoming and a place that people feel safe,” Vann-Turnbull said. “Each family in our shelter has their own bedroom and bathroom. We're the only setup that is that way in our region for shelter. It's a little more trauma-informed. It gives families a little more privacy and space.”

They also connect families with rehousing resources through their Building Neighbors Rapid Rehousing program. And their Bringing Families Home program helps Richmond Public Schools students and families who are not yet homeless but living in hotels or with loved ones move into permanent housing.

“We're working with them to search for rental housing that meets their needs. To go through the application process, the lease negotiation.” Vann-Turnbull said. “We do an inspection on behalf of the family and then help with financial assistance to help them move into the home and then work with them for a period of months after that to really help them stabilize in that home.”

The Hilliard House can house about 11 families at a time or 40 total individuals. They serve about 50-60 families over the course of a year, and those families stay in their shelter for an average of 75 days. However, like the city’s other non-congregate shelters, there’s still a need for more programs like theirs.

“There's certainly a waitlist,” Vann-Turnbull said.

That waitlist has only grown since the pandemic began, and as the cost of housing continues to rise in the city, the amount of time it takes families to move out of the shelter has also gotten longer. Those increasing costs also mean the program can financially support less and less families every year.

“There's not an unlimited pool of money we have or anybody has. It means we help fewer people,” Vann-Turnbull said.

Housing Families First not only connects families with the resources they qualify for, but it also provides direct financial assistance for families working to find a new home. Typically those funds go towards paying off previous debts or putting down a security deposit for a new home.

“We spend the money it takes, in most cases, unless it's just so outrageous it just can't be done. But in most cases we will pay the high cost. And it's gone up significantly,” Vann-Turnbull said.

According to research by the Partnership for Housing Affordability, rents increases in the Richmond region have far outpaced wage growth, eating away at households’ ability to pay. Between 2015 and 2020, the median incomes across the region rose by 10% on average while median rents increased by 20% on average. Over that same period, dedicated affordable apartments in the city accounted for less than 20% of all new rental construction.

The Espigh Family Shelter, operated by HomeAgain Richmond, also serves the Richmond area homeless population. That shelter provides temporary housing for up to 35 women and families at a time. For adult men experiencing homelessness, that program also runs a men’s emergency shelter with the capacity to support 20 people. According to their website, HomeAgain also provides people staying at its shelters with case management services, healthy meals and workforce development resources.

For women and their children experiencing homelessness after fleeing a household due to domestic or sexual violence, there is also a program dedicated to their needs in Richmond. YWCA Richmond manages a regional hotline for survivors of these types of violence. Unlike other Richmond-area homeless resources, YWCA Richmond’s CEO Linda Tissiere says there is no waiting list at the YWCA for women and their children who are determined to be in imminent danger.

“When a caller calls the hotline, there's an assessment that is made as to whether or not that caller is in imminent danger. And if they are, we will always bring them safely into shelter somewhere,” Tissiere said. “And the nice thing about the regional collaborative is that we work with each other. So if, for instance, one person's shelter is full or for some reason I can't accommodate that client, we can always look for something in a different jurisdiction.”

Brick building with staircase in front
The YWCA building in Richmond's Monroe Ward. (Photo: Connor Scribner/VPM News)

Like the Commonwealth Catholic Charities program, the YWCA houses those needing shelter in hotel rooms. In addition to a safe space for families to spend the night, this program also provides them with therapeutic counseling, case management, resources for education and safety planning, and free childcare.

The program where Hill and Cody ended up after their motel stay, however, was the Salvation Army’s homeless shelter. This shelter has 33 beds available in a congregate men’s facility plus four separate family units.

Last year the shelter housed a total of 121 people, including 14 families with 36 children. On average, families stay in the shelter for about 30 days, though the pandemic has lengthened many of their stays. There’s a waiting list for accommodations at their shelter, which Area Commander Jason Burns said varies from season to season. But he says there’s never enough beds in the city.

“Less than half of those who are homeless [are] able to have a bed in any of the shelters,” Burns said. “There's a significant need.”

Hill and Cody say they made history as the first father/son duo to stay in the Salvation Army’s family units.

“I felt safe. I felt comfortable. We got along. I mean, everything was great. The women were very supportive of me, because I was a single man, you know, trying to make it with my child,” Hill said.

The Salvation Army also connects homeless individuals and families with the resources they need to find a new home and keep it. This assistance comes in the form of access to adult rehabilitation centers and direct financial assistance. Hill says that financial assistance is the reason why he was able to move out of the shelter with Cody.

“There would have been no way for me to do it. There would have been no possible way,” Hill said. “The Salvation Army has been great to me and my son. They've helped us tremendously, and they haven't stopped helping us.”

Hill and Cody have their own apartment now. They signed the lease about two years ago.

“They've done everything they could do to help us.” Hill said. “As long as you don't give up and you keep trying, they're willing to help.”

What you can do

If you’re struggling to keep your home but are not yet homeless, contact the Partnership for Housing Affordability at 804-422-5061 or fill out a request for services here. You can also donate to the PHA here.

If you’re facing homelessness or are currently homeless because you’re fleeing domestic or sexual violence, call or text the YWCA Hotline at 804-612-6126. To donate to the YWCA click this link. To volunteer, click here.

If you’re currently homeless, contact the Homeless Connection Line at 804-972-0813.

To support Housing Families First, you can donate money by clicking here. To donate to the Salvation Army, click this link or sign up to volunteer here. To volunteer with HomeAgain Richmond, click this link. To donate to Homeward, click here