12/29/2022, 6 p.m.
Here’s the good news: So far, there have been no reports of unsheltered people freezing to death in the Arctic blast that hit the Richmond area just before Christmas.
With private and city-supported shelters full, people were left in the cold. Some found their way to the Greyhound bus station. Some sheltered in tents. And the homeless advocacy group Blessing Warriors RVA raised more than $4,500 and was able to temporarily house some in hotels and motels.
The bad news is that City Hall flopped in ensuring there were sufficient shelter beds.
It is unclear why. City officials have kept mum on the subject, offering, as one critic put it, “a verbal fruit salad” to try to avoid responsibility.
Only two of the four overflow shelters that Mayor Levar M. Stoney and City Council approved for support were open to provide overflow space after shelters that CARITAS, Salvation Army and other organizations operate filled up.
The two that opened were the 60-bed shelter for men that United Nations Church is operating in a gym on its South Side campus and a 40-bed shelter for women and children at RVA Sister’s Keeper are operating in a former counseling center on Hull Street.
Frankly, it is difficult to understand why the Stoney administration refused to allow Fifth Street Baptist Church in Highland Park to open its planned 30-bed shelter during this weather emergency without first getting a special use permit, which will be approved next week by the Planning Commission and by the council at its Jan. 9 meeting.
Churches are allowed to provide emergency shelter, certainly for seven days, which would have covered this emergency period that will end in rising temperatures at the end of this week.
But churches actually no longer face any time limits on providing emergency shelter.
In March 2021, the council passed a zoning overhaul that included language allowing churches to provide emergency housing without any time limits. So far, no one at City Hall has been willing to explain why Fifth Street Baptist needed a special use permit or why that permit was more important than keeping people from freezing to death.
Then there is the question of why the city has slow-walked completion of a contract enabling Commonwealth Catholic Charities to access city funds and open a 60-bed shelter at 1900 Chamberlayne Ave., which is now owned by the Salvation Army.
Unable to obtain city funds, CCC raised $30,000 in December and opened a 30-bed shelter on its own, which quickly filled up. CCC can operate for two weeks while it still waits for the city to approve the contract to support 60 beds that has been in the works since at least July.
In January 2020, the council approved a special use permit to enable the Salvation Army to operate a shelter for 97 men, women and children at that location.
It would seem simple enough to create a legal fig leaf that would have allowed CCC to fully open. No, it was more important that CCC gain its own permission slip, even if that took forever and left desperate people in the cold.
Mayor Stoney has lectured everyone about how this city’s goal is to create One Richmond and equity for all. Apparently, you had to read the fine print on his messaging: Legal niceties are more important than people. Alas.