Plans to house the homeless in Shockoe Valley disappear

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 6/16/2022, 6 p.m.
Plans for a year-round shelter open around the clock for the homeless have suddenly evaporated seven months after being announced.
Ms. Lynch

Plans for a year-round shelter open around the clock for the homeless have suddenly evaporated seven months after being announced.

Commonwealth Catholic Charities, which secured city support to add a 75-bed inclement weather operation to be used as a housing resource center at 809 Oliver Hill Way, has dropped its plans for developing the expanded space.

CCC Marketing Manager Katie Dillon on Tuesday confirmed in response to a Free Press query that the project to provide a place for the unsheltered to stay during the high heat of Richmond summers, the freezing cold of winter and drenching storms has been dropped.

“Last week, we informed city staff that CCC cannot proceed with the development of the inclement weather shelter at our Oliver Hill Way location,” Ms. Dillon explained in an email.

“The project simply faced too many challenges resulting in significant and extended delays,” she continued. “Despite our very best efforts, substantial staff time and financial resources, the setbacks made it impossible to complete the project in time for winter.”

Ms. Dillon stated that CCC has released the remaining portion of the $1.76 million in federal funds that Mayor Levar M. Stoney and City Council had set aside for the project while also adding that CCC remains “deeply committed to assisting unsheltered individuals and grateful for our ongoing partnership with the city and the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care,” an umbrella planning group for homeless services organizations.

Mayor Stoney and administration officials, including Reginald E. Gordon, who oversees human services operations, have not publicly announced the CCC decision and did not respond to Free Press inquiries.

In discussions with council in recent months, the Stoney administration did not indicate there were any backup plans in place in case this development fell through.

Back in October, 5th District Councilwoman Stephanie A. Lynch had greeted the CCC’s plan with enthusiasm, calling it the end of a “long hard-fought battle.”

Ms. Lynch, who chairs the council’s Education and Human Services Committee and has been a leader in pushing for a year-round shelter, called it “disappointing and frustrating” that the promised CCC shelter will not materialize.

Still, she said that she and other council members are not completely surprised the shelter agreement with the city fell apart as the Oct. 1 deadline for providing a winter shelter begins to loom.

There has been skepticism that CCC and the city could get this project “up and running in such a short amount of time, knowing that we do not own the space and it is not a public asset. If it were, it could have been done.”

Ms. Lynch has pushed for Richmond to emulate Virginia Beach in offering a one-stop shop that could provide information, counseling and other services along with shelter, a big step up from the current Richmond operation that provides only an overnight shelter during the winter to keep unsheltered people from freezing to death.

Creation of a year-round shelter running 24/7 is one element of the city’s homeless strategic plan that the administration developed with Homeward, the coordinating agency for nonprofit shelter agencies, and that the council approved more than two years ago.

The council also adopted a Lynch-sponsored resolution in 2020 that pressed the administration to develop a year-round operation as a backstop for people who might face eviction, lose jobs or face other challenges that would cost them their residences.

CCC has operated the winter shelter for the city for the past few years. A council policy requires the city to provide an overflow space when the temperature, along with wind chill, are forecast to be 40 degrees or below, to ensure a safe place when other private shelter beds are full.

Last winter, the shelter was housed at the Quality Inn on Arthur Ashe Boulevard. That was supposed to be temporary after CCC agreed to dramatically increase the services and shelter it could provide at its Oliver Hill Way location – even though 75 beds would have fallen far short of the need. On a given winter night, 110 to 150 people slept nightly in the Quality Inn’s conference room space.

With CCC out of the picture, Ms. Lynch she hopes “we can find a permanent solution so we do not have to keep kicking this can down the road.

“Our point of entry and homeless services system is only as strong as our provider partners,” she said. “We can and should support them by doing our fair share through helping to fund services and providing space for them to operate.”

In her view, a year-round service space with shelter is needed more than ever. “We are facing a perfect storm of conditions that could ultimately lead to a significant increase in the number of individuals and families on the street.

That includes the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, the surging inflation in food and fuel prices, the rise in housing costs and the prospects of a jump in evictions for people who can no longer receive government rent relief, she said.

Those challenges could end up being reflected in a fresh tide of homeless people, she said.

Ms. Lynch noted that the homeless count taken every six months in this area shows an increase in individuals and families on the street.

“Against the backdrop of record state and local budget surpluses,” she said, “that increase is an indicator that we are living in a moral and social hypocrisy. We cannot absolve ourselves or turn our heads from the humanitarian crisis that is developing in our own backyard.”