Virginia's houseless population is growing Virginia's houseless population is growing

Homeward officials say it’s standard practice, but several Richmond residents disagree.

RICHMOND – On New Years Eve, houseless residents of a cold-weather shelter located in the Broad Street Econolodge received a notice from motel management that they had to leave the next morning. The residents, some of whom had been in the shelter for as long as six weeks, were caught off guard by what appeared to be an unprompted suspension in shelter services.

Lawrence West, a founding member of the black liberation advocacy group BLM RVA, received a call from a recipient of Homeward Safety Net Shelter services seeking advice. The caller told West they need help navigating the emergency housing system. 

At first, West says he thought it was a mistake. 

“I called [another resident], because basically I was just like, ‘Ok, you’re there right now, are they actually putting people out or is that just what’s going around,” West said. 

West confirmed that many residents in the Safety Net Shelter (SNS), also known as a cold-weather shelter, had received less than a day’s warning before the suspension of services on December 31. 

“Nobody knew except the things they posted on the door the night before,” said West. 

No Notice for Houseless Folks

Faith Kallman, director of development at Homeward, said that residents received notification in-person on December 28 and in writing on December 29 of the upcoming suspension in services. However, Kallman did not respond to requests from Dogwood for a copy of the written notice. Activists say they did not receive one. 

When West arrived at the Midlothian Inn, one of SNS locations, motel staff were already cleaning out rooms so they could be turned over. He said he left there shortly afterwards, but found that at the Econolodge, staff were more willing to work with BLM RVA and other activist groups. 

When BLM RVA sent out a call for donations, West says support from the community came pouring in. 

“We came up with $3770,” West said. 

According to West, that money was enough to keep a few people in the motel for two more days. 

Left Out in the Cold

According to Kallman, the SNS is open only when the temperature forecast indicates it’s necessary. She says this typically means sustained temperatures below 40 degrees.

Kallman said that policy is what led to the shutdown on New Year’s Eve. She also said it’s responsible for the subsequent reopening of the shelter on January 3rd.

It’s true that average temperatures rose to over 40 degrees on January 1st and 2nd. However, the overnight low remained below 40 degrees. Additionally, rainfall on January 2 introduced an element of “inclement weather,” another factor cited by Homeward as a reason to open the shelter.

Unsafe Conditions for Houseless Folks

And when SNS did reopen on January 3rd, there was a major difference in the quality of their services. Residents who were living in individual rooms to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 are now sleeping in a motel ballroom.

Svondai Brown, a board member of Blessing Warriors RVA, said the new housing situation seemed disorganized.

“It was like they had no plan to house people,” Brown said. 

Blessing Warriors RVA is a community organization supporting houseless people in Richmond.

According to Brown, shelter recipients are complaining that there is a lack of bedding and lax COVID-19 screenings in the new facilities. 

Kallman says Homeward employs the Virginia Department of Health’s COVID-19 Daily Employee Symptom Checklist, in addition to temperature checks during intake.

Rhonda Sneed, another board member of Blessing Warriors, says otherwise. She’s often providing care at the local shelters, especially over the last few months. Brown claims there are lapses in Homeward’s COVID-19 protocols.  

“I haven’t seen them doing temperature checks in a while,” said Sneed. 

Brown says the Blessing Warriors have been trying to provide houseless people with support and amenities to supplement Homeward services. But it’s been difficult. 

“We don’t, you know, get the grants and funding they do. But we’re out here 24 hours a day,” Brown said. 

Crisis Line Dead 

The Housing Crisis Line is the primary method houseless people use to access Homeward services. Kallman says service recipients only have to call once per season in order to receive services. 

“Most calls are answered or returned on the day of their call and messages are returned within one business day,” Kallman said. 

But Brown expressed frustration with the Housing Crisis Line, saying houseless people have struggled to get through to shelter staff. She says they have had to call repeatedly to redo intake when reentering Homeward shelters. Brown also said members of Blessing Warriors call the Housing Line themselves to assist in arranging services for houseless people.

Many of those frustrations stem from the lack of a permanent location for people to access services. This makes houseless people reliant on a phone line that many have difficulty accessing. That combined with the complexity of Homeward’s various shelter systems, which have different requirements, leads to confusion.

Homeward is now, according to Kallman, the coordinating agency for homeless services in the Greater Richmond region. But that wasn’t always the case. 

Filling the City’s Houseless Gap 

During the Winter of 2018, Richmond used the Conrad Center to provide cold-weather shelter to houseless people. Then, in the Winter of 2019, just before the outbreak of COVID-19, houseless people collectively formed Camp Cathy. The camp was a tent community that many houseless people said they preferred to crowded city shelters. 

The city shut Camp Cathy down in March of 2020, drawing criticism from Sneed and Fifth District Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch.

Homweard is filling the service gap left behind by the eviction of Camp Cathy and the shutdown of city-run shelters.

But unlike typical shelters, which use dedicated facilities, Homeward largely relies on local motels to provide non-congregate housing. These are individual rooms that allow houseless people to avoid the spread of COVID-19 by staying in crowded dormitories. Many Homeward service recipients are still in individual rooms. But recipients of SNS services are living in dormitory conditions after the service suspension on New Year’s Eve.

Homeward is a non-profit. Since 2016, its typically receives over a million dollars each year in revenues, including gifts and grants. 

According to a document generated by Homeward, from March to November 2020 they received $2,401,450 in federal CARES Act funding. This money is earmarked for operating a pandemic response shelter. The SNS is part of the pandemic response shelter program, which is maintained by CARES Act funding. 

Over the same period, Homeward received $350,000 in city funds.

Where is the Money Going? 

A total of $801,000 of those funds, which came from the Department of the Treasury, were only accessible through December 30. That’s just a day before Homeward temporarily suspended SNS services, only to resume them two days later in a cheaper, dormitory setting.

In 2018, the latest year for which tax filings are publicly available, Homeward spent $696,824 in employee salaries and other benefits. During that time it spent only $270,153 in program reimbursements and $16,802 on community outreach.

Earlier in December, VPM reported on Councilwoman Kirsten Larson raising concerns about Homeward’s finances, citing apparently inadequate services. According to a report by VPM, Homeward Executive Director Kelly King Horne is refusing requests by Larson for an accounting of the program.

For Lawrence West, that lack of transparency is the key to Homeward’s issues.

“The city and these types of programs need to consult the community to find viable and sustainable solutions,” West said.

Representatives of Homeward did not respond to requests to make available copies of financial statements for public review.

Jakob Cordes is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach him at info@vadogwood.com.