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Richmond opens temporary homeless shelters, but permanent plans remain unclear

A building is surrounded by trees and a parking lot.
Commonwealth Catholic Charities is hoping to open its seasonal shelter — with 60 beds — by mid-December. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The city of Richmond this week opened two temporary shelters for people experiencing homelessness, but four seasonal shelters have no definite opening date.  

The two shelters near Manchester will only operate at night when temperatures are below 40 degrees. The men’s shelter is at 1901 Wall St., and the women’s shelter is located at 2807 Hull St. The original RFP to operate these inclement weather shelters asked for them to be open by Nov. 1.  

Four planned seasonal shelters — two in Northside and two in Southside — still have no clear opening date. All four have had city funds appropriated for renovations, but only one has had funds appropriated for operations. 

The delays come amid rising rent, increased evictions and a homelessness crisis one advocate described as “harder than [it’s] ever been.”  

“The rates of homelessness actually now are a little bit lower than, say, 10 or 15 years ago, but the housing market is just so challenging,” said Kelly King Horne, the executive director of Homeward, a planning agency for the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care, a network of homeless service providers.   

A city spokesperson said the delays were due to shifting from a plan with one shelter to a plan with four dispersed shelters for the winter months, which potentially would allow people experiencing homelessness easier access during inclement weather.  

“In order to achieve this objective, the city needed to solicit the opportunity to operate such a shelter to a broader array of organizations located within the city, including religious organizations that we knew might have larger spaces available for such use,” said city spokesperson Petula Burks in an email. “This is really why we were not able to open in October.” 

Richmond does not directly provide programs or services for those experiencing homelessness. Instead, nonprofit agencies do, and city departments are involved in the management and administration of agreements with those agencies.  

In an interview Wednesday, Commonwealth Catholic Charities CEO Jay Brown said the organization — the Catholic Diocese of Richmond’s social ministry arm — was still waiting on details from the city about basic operational information. Zoning and transportation were top concerns. 

“We've had one conversation, and a good one, where the city brought all of the different shelter providers together,” he said. “I think that could’ve happened a lot sooner, frankly.” 

Brown said having different shelters, rather than one central location, presents questions about when any of the four reaches capacity. Having clarity on how the level of care is ensured across locations would help avoid people developing a preference for one of the four shelters.   

Brown said CCC is hoping to open its seasonal shelter by mid-December. When open, he said there will be 60 beds. 

In total, all four seasonal shelters should have 150 beds available. 

In August, CCC proposed a single shelter with 150 beds. And in a statement, a spokesperson said the organization learned through a City Council meeting that Richmond would pursue a four-shelter plan instead. 

Councilmember Stephanie Lynch, who represents the 5th District, said she thought the city administration was to blame for the change in plans and the subsequent delays, but that CCC “probably” shares some of the blame as well.  

“If this was an economic development project that was worth millions and bajillions of dollars, and something didn't get done on a deadline, and there were administrators that were cooperating and people dropped the ball, people would be fired,” she said.  

Coordination between the city and agencies was an issue raised by the Office of the City Auditor earlier this year. It recommended the Department of Housing and Community Development should formally delineate the city’s roles and responsibilities with the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care, a network of organizations working on homelessness.  

The two haven’t done so yet because GRCOC has a strategic planning process it’s working to complete, King Horne, the executive director of Homeward, said in a text message.  

Changing how funds were procured or handled was also among recommendations by the auditor’s office. It found that more than a quarter of $209,927 in expenditures from 10 of the city’s vendors for homelessness services were not supported with receipts. 

The auditor’s office also said that the city couldn’t apply for certain federal grants, since it lacked a centralized grant management function. That includes a FEMA grant for “non-congregate emergency sheltering,” which would fund shelter for people experiencing homelessness.