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Officials: City will miss deadline it set to open cold weather shelter

Richmond city hall
City officials told Richmond City Council last week that an inclement weather shelter that can house 60 people will open around Nov. 15. Additional shelters are planned, but no date was given for their opening. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Richmond will not be able to meet a self-imposed deadline this year to build a seasonal winter shelter, city staff said Thursday. On about Nov. 15 — instead of Nov. 1 — 60 shelter beds are expected to open, and 90 more are planned to be available in early 2023.

In previous winters, the city had all 150 beds available between November and April.

During the Richmond City Council’s Education and Human Services Standing Committee meeting last week, Councilor Stephanie Lynch said the city is leaving its most vulnerable constituents behind.

“We are not meeting our moral obligation,” Lynch said. “We are failing.”

City officials set the Nov. 1 deadline in its request for applications for the project, which specified that the shelter must be open from Nov. 1 to April 15, 2023; Nov. 1, 2023 to April 15, 2024; and during any severe weather events during the summers of 2023 and 2024.

The request also specified that the shelters must be open from 5 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. every day, with the capacity to remain open for 24 hours if there’s severe weather. They will be required to provide on-site security and must also give clients two meals every day.

The city’s previous inclement weather shelter — at the Annie Giles Center — closed in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the next year, homeless service providers in Richmond housed people in motels around the city. Mayor Levar Stoney originally recommended replacing the seasonal shelter with a year-round one run by Commonwealth Catholic Charities. City Council adopted that recommendation, but the plan hit a snag in June 2022 when the nonprofit pulled out after no contractors bid on the project.

“We were thrown through a loop when Commonwealth Catholic Charities stepped out,” Councilor Mike Jones said.

The city’s Department of Housing and Community Development started accepting new applications for the approximately $3 million, two-year project on July 26, with bids due by Aug. 25. At its meeting last week, the committee recommended that the full council approve the allocation of these funds during a special meeting planned for Nov. 7.

To open the 60-bed winter shelter at Commonwealth Catholic Charities, the city plans to invest $966,121 over the next fiscal year into renovations, supplies, staff and operational costs. Fifth Baptist Church will receive $221,472 from the city to make renovations to its space during the next fiscal year, while the United Nations Church and nonprofit RVA Sister’s Keeper will each receive $71,422 to cover the same expenses.

That money all comes from the federal government, including several community development block grants the city has received and funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. There are no time restrictions on that funding, according to Sharon Ebert, the city’s deputy chief administration officer for the Department of Economic Development. But, Ebert said, the city will have to seek additional funding to cover the cost of supporting operations at the three smaller shelters.

“We're looking at, I think, … about another $3 million to be able to make operational all of this,” Ebert said.

The locations where the city plans to host its cold weather shelters in the future are spread out across the city including two in Northside and two in Southside.

Jones said having the shelters spread out across the city would help homeless people access them more easily.

“It spreads the responsibility. And it allows other areas to take part in this, so you don't have 150 people in any one given area. Because that, in my opinion, puts undue burdens on a place that may not have the infrastructure or the resources to really take care of [unhoused people],” Jones said. 

If the council approves the plan, work will begin Nov. 7 because federal regulations require that the contract with CCC be advertised in the local media before the city can accept it, said Director of Housing and Community Development Sherrill Hampton. She added that it will then take CCC at least a week to set up their shelter operations. All four of the providers selected by the city are expected to commence renovations to their spaces over the winter.

Hampton said the city is waiting to seek funding to support operations suitable for homeless clients at Fifth Street Baptist and United Nations churches and also RVA Sister's Keeper, a local mental health provider that already runs a shelter for women and children. Each of those locations will have a maximum capacity of 30 beds. Hampton said they city hopes to have the funding request prepared by November but did not give a clear timeline on when the second wave of shelters would be operational.

Hana Mills, a person who is unhoused and has been living on the streets of Richmond since June, said she worries about how long the process will take.

“It's been freezing cold lately,” Mills said. “They just want to shove us down under the rug and pretend like we don't exist. But we do. And there's so many of us.”

There are 12 shelters currently in Richmond, but because their capacity can’t meet the demand for services, Mills and her husband said they have nowhere to turn because they don’t qualify for access to a family shelter, which only accept adults who are caring for children.

Mills said she’s afraid she and her fiance will freeze this winter.

“It gets frustrating, and you just want to break down and cry and scream and yell because we're doing the best we can,” Mills said. “We're going to where we need to go, we're calling who we need to call. And still very few people want to help.”

A recent uptick in evictions, partially caused by the ending of several pandemic-era eviction protections, has threatened many people’s housing stability. According to analysis by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, 1,474 eviction cases were filed in Richmond between July and September of 2021; during that period this year, 4,248 evictions were filed. A study that looked at the outcomes of people evicted in New York City from 2007 to 2016 reported, “Evictions cause large and persistent increases in risk of homelessness [and] elevate long-term residential instability.”

Rhonda Sneed, the founder of Blessing Warriors RVA, a local nonprofit that feeds and clothes more than 150 people without homes across the city each day, said she’s recently seen the number of people without housing increase.

“There's a lot more people out there,” Sneed said. “I get calls from people that I've never met, never heard of, and they tell me that they're afraid, they have no idea what to do, where to go.”

According to Homeward, which conducts a biennial count of unhoused people, there were 447 people experiencing homelessness in Richmond during July, including 204 who were living without shelter.