City Council member raises host of questions on homeless plan

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 8/9/2018, 6 a.m.


Ellen Robertson

City Councilwoman Ellen F. Robertson feels caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to a proposal to create a housing services center for the homeless in a church building in South Side.

The 6th District representative believes the city can and should do better in creating such a center, pointing to Virginia Beach city government’s new housing services center as a model of what can happen when a city takes the homeless issue seriously.

But she also doesn’t want to leave homeless people without a place to go during freezing temperatures should the city shut down its current overflow shelter in the former Public Safety Building in Downtown.

“To say, ‘No,’ without another option is not the right thing to do,” Ms. Robertson said.

She offered her thoughts following a community meeting last Wednesday at which Commonwealth Catholic Charities showed off plans for the homeless center it wants to open at 1101 Bainbridge Street.

CCC wants to purchase the church site for a center that would dramatically expand services to the homeless and go far beyond the overnight shelter that it has operated for the past few years in the old Public Safety Building near City Hall.

The city spends about $163,000 a year for services from CCC, it has been reported.

Despite being wooed by city and CCC officials, Ms. Robertson remains skeptical about the CCC proposal, particularly after hearing from Bainbridge area residents who raised concerns that their up-and-coming residential neighborhood would become the central location for hundreds of people desperate for help with housing, food and other basic needs.

“I don’t feel the location on Bainbridge is the right location” to handle the numbers of people that CCC wants to serve, Ms. Robertson said.

CCC’s proposal, she said, calls for creation of a one-stop center where homeless people could sleep, stay on cold days, be fed and receive housing and health counseling. CCC also wants to add showers, lockers, a clothes closet and an addition to provide transitional housing.

As conceived, the site would serve 200 to 500 people daily and also be the replacement site for the weekend feeding programs in Monroe Park.

CCC has not filed an application for a special use permit needed to carry out the ambitious plan, a permit that would require City Council approval.

“I don’t think this site can support this scale of a business,” said Ms. Robertson, whose vote on a special use permit would be crucial because she represents the area.

She said she wants to see the 36 other sites CCC officials reviewed and rejected before selecting the church site. She said she also would like the city to issue a request for proposals that could attract other property owners.

She also expressed concern that the CCC program would be located away from key providers that are concentrated north of the river.

Nor is she satisfied that CCC’s plan links well enough with the host of other homeless service providers in Richmond, ranging from the Daily Planet to the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, HomeAgain and Rapid Re-housing.