Richmond City Council Asked to Reform Houseless Services

They say they've tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.

By Megan Schiffres

January 26, 2021

More than 100 people sign a petition, calling on the council to make changes.

RICHMOND – Irving “Peanut” Ward, a Richmonder without consistent access to housing, was a cheerful staple of the community until 2016. That winter, Peanut froze to death on the streets of Virginia’s capital city. 

“He was a very warm spirited person and losing him was a tragedy. It could have been prevented,” said Aaron Kemmerer. “I think of him when I think of people who are experiencing this system.”

Kemmerer, a PhD candidate at VCU’s School of Social Work, was among more than 100 people petitioning the Richmond City Council Monday to reform its houseless services.  

‘Never Enough Beds’ 

“There has never been enough beds to house everyone. And now that the pandemic has worsened these conditions, people are not acting responsibly about how to carry out shelter services,” Kemmerer said. 

Homeward is the non-profit organization Richmond uses to coordinate its shelter services. According to their data, last year 479 houseless adults and 70 children without homes were living in the capital city. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Commonwealth’s economy and housing crisis mean this number is growing. 

“The volume, as you can expect this year with COVID-19, has increased exponentially,” said Sharon Ebert.

Ebert is deputy chief administrative officer of Richmond’s Department of Economic Development. In response to this increase in demand, she says they are transitioning to a new model she hopes will provide more beds and safer conditions. 

“We have provided four hundred rooms, hotel rooms. And we have a capacity for up to eight hundred individuals based on the need and vulnerability,” Ebert said. 

Despite this increase in capacity, social workers in the community say the city is failing to meet the needs of its houseless community. 

Resources for Houseless Richmonders

Homeward is not a homeless shelter. It’s an administrative organization which connects  houseless Richmonders to existing shelter services. 

But when the pandemic hit, the organization took on a more direct role. The city chose Homeward to administer its pandemic shelter system. 

“Having people either in our cold weather overflow shelters, people on the streets, people facing homelessness, or even people sheltering in tents was not ideal. So we immediately changed our level of shelter and went to securing a number of hotel rooms throughout the city and Henrico to respond to that,” said Ebert. 

The shelter system currently operates out of six hotels in the Richmond-area. Through this program, houseless people can check in for the evening and spend the night in a hotel room where they also receive three meals. However, according to Ebert, it doesn’t take long for those rooms to fill up. 

“We did not have enough hotel rooms to accommodate people with critical needs and critical vulnerability versus those individuals who just wanted to get out of the cold,” Ebert said. 

Though the shelter system can technically serve up to 800 individuals, that would mean rooming strangers with each other, which defeats the purpose of this COVID-safe arrangement. 

“We do sometimes offer double occupancy in the hotel rooms because they have double occupancy, double beds,” said Ebert. 

Without mixing the living spaces of strangers, the program only has 400 hotel rooms available in the city.

The Safety Net Shelter Has Holes

Even doubling the capacity of these hotel rooms is not enough to meet Richmond’s demand for emergency housing. 

For people who don’t meet the qualifications necessary to access the shelter system, there is a “safety net shelter.” But social workers in the city warn that these safety nets have some gaping holes. 

Instead of individual hotel rooms, this shelter program is housing people in congregant environments. Social workers point out that this puts both houseless people and shelter staff at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. 

“Homeward has said that they are going to provide individual rooms for people who are seeking shelter. But there have been people sleeping in the lobby of the hotels,” Kemmerer said. 

News of these conditions spread after an article by Virginia Public Media featuring images of the congregate environments was published.

According to Ebert, the “safety net shelter” model is replacing the city’s former cold weather shelter. It does this by providing a place for houseless people to stay when temperatures drop below 40 degrees or inclement weather occurs. She says the old cold weather shelter did not have enough space to accommodate social distancing guidelines. 

“If we were to safely distance those cots we would never have been able to accommodate this many individuals at night,” Ebert said. 

Social workers say they still don’t have enough space or beds to safely provide services. 

“They said that they would do individual rooms to protect people and to have isolated rooms for the pandemic, because of the pandemic. But that has not materialized. They have been using the congregate setting of the ballroom to house people,” Kemmerer said. 

Issues With Accessing Support for Houseless Folks

A combined 158 students, faculty, and alumni of VCU’s School of Social Work have added their signatures to Kemmerer’s petition. In addition to finding housing for everyone who needs it, the petition asks the council to ensure Homeward’s Housing Crisis Line receives adequate staff. 

Ebert agrees that the city needs to be doing more in this regard. 

“We simply at this point don’t have enough social workers to help meet the demand that we currently have,” Ebert said.

However, the problems don’t stop there, according to Kemmerer. He says the concept of using a hotline to access resources for houseless people is ridiculous. 

“Anyone who has experienced financial struggle knows that your phone is usually the first thing in terms of bills that you can not pay. So a lot of people who are experiencing housing crises do not have a phone that’s reliable for contacting the crisis line or for being called back,” Kemmerer said. 

A Chaotic Reaction to COVID

According to Kemmerer, need in the capital city for shelter services has skyrocketed since the pandemic began. That’s not entirely due to the virus though. Some of this instability, Kemmerer says, is because of the city’s chaotic response to the pandemic in March. 

“In the early days of the pandemic, in a panic the city demolished Camp Cathy. Even though there were explicit recommendations from CDC to not destroy encampments. That it was actually better for people to stay where they were. And that it would increase the spread of COVID to demolish encampments,” said Kemmerer. “That injustice is the history of this situation. It’s really important, I think, to keep in mind that that’s in the community memory. That this has recently happened. And it’s because of the lack of calm and well thought through action on the part of the city.” 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s guidance on people experiencing unsheltered homelessness during the pandemic says “if individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.” 

Unfortunately, Kemmerer says the destruction of Camp Cathy isn’t the first time houseless people in Richmond have had encampments destroyed. 

“There are many people who are still sleeping outdoors and RPD is notorious for harassing houseless people in the city. And there have been instances of them tearing down people’s self-made tents,” Kemmerer said. 

Demanding Transparency From Houseless Service Providers

Members of the council did not discuss the petition when they received it during their regular meeting Monday. However, members did discuss the houselessness crisis during their informal meeting that afternoon. 

Representing District 5, Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch said she wants the city to establish a more permanent cold weather shelter. 

“We as a council really need to decide, ongoing, are we going to commit to doing a permanent cold weather shelter or not? Certainly the Quality Inn is not permanent,” Lynch said. 

Rather than focusing on the future, Councilwoman Kristin Larson, representing District 4, is more concerned with how the city is spending money on houseless people now. According to Larson, she’s been trying to figure out how much the program costs for months. So far, she’s been unsuccessful. 

“I have been asking for months for some budget information,” said Larson. “I’m looking for a monthly breakdown of what the city is spending on homelessness services, I’m also looking for the invoices to date from Homeward and other service providers of homelessness services. I’m also looking, and all these things I’ve asked for before in a public meeting, a budget. I hope we are working off some sort of budget for the collaborative action plan.” 

Since 2016, Homeward 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. In addition, over the same period Homeward received $350,000 in city funds.

RELATED: Houseless Residents Say They Were Evicted Without Warning in Richmond 

What Can You Do to Support Houseless Richmonders?

Richmond’s mayor Levar Stoney said last year that he plans to form a Homeless Advisory Council. The council, which the Richmond Times Dispatch reported last year was going to meet weekly beginning this month, still has not met publicly. 

If you have an interest in supporting houseless individuals in Richmond, consider donating to Blessing Warriors RVA. They’re a non-profit organization that distributes donations and essential supplies to the houseless community of Richmond. 

You can also encourage members of the Richmond government to support their houseless constituents by calling and emailing them. You can find the contact information for your representative on the council here. To reach Richmond’s mayor, give him a call at 804-646-7970 or email his office at [email protected]

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