Worries grow about City’s policy for sheltering the homeless

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 11/3/2022, 6 p.m.
For apparently the first time in a decade, City Hall did not open a temporary shelter for the homeless when …
Ms. Sneed

For apparently the first time in a decade, City Hall did not open a temporary shelter for the homeless when the temperature, including the wind chill, recently fell below 40 degrees.

While the forecast temperature was above 40 degrees, a stiff northern breeze that also was forecast made it feel like 39 degrees in the city – triggering a policy in place since 2012 that requires an overflow shelter.

In response to a Free Press query, the city’s spokeswoman, Petula Burks, director of the city’s office of Strategic Communications, maintained that policy is still in force but declined to answer follow-up questions.

According to Rhonda Sneed, founding executive director of the homeless feeding and support group Blessing Warriors RVA, the city’s inaction on making a shelter available last weekend is in line with what she heard city officials explain at a recent meeting on shelter operations.

“They said that the temperature must be 40 degrees or below and that wind chill would not be considered,” said Ms. Sneed, who is upset that the city has modified the policy. “All the nonprofit shelters are filled, so there is no place for people to go.”

She said the issue is becoming more serious as she finds more people living with their children in cars or sleeping on sidewalks or in doorways. While nighttime temperatures of 50 degrees or better are forecast for the coming days, chillier low temperatures are on the way as winter approaches.

Ms. Sneed said she and members of her organization are out on the street 10 to 14 hours a day delivering food, blankets, clothes to the unsheltered. “We’re serving 200 people a day and we’re getting stretched thin.”

She said her group was largely able to meet the need with a daily distribution of 50 to 60 sandwiches, bowls of soup and dozens of hardboiled eggs, but that no longer can go far enough. “Our food demand has doubled because of the increasing numbers of people we are finding.”

City Hall, though, is not rushing to fill the shelter gap. Next Monday, Nov. 7, City Council will hold a special meeting to authorize city officials to spend about $900,000 on inclement weather shelters at four locations.

However, the city’s plan as outlined by Sherrill Hampton, director of the city’s Housing and Community Development Department, calls for only one 60-bed shelter to open, and there is no guarantee that will happen.

The ordinances to be passed would allow Ms. Hampton’s department to spend $615,0000 with Commonwealth Catholic Charities of Virginia to operate that small shelter, leaving three others closed until more money is found.

However, CCC, which plans to use space at the Salvation Army’s new location at 1900 Chamberlayne Avenue, stated on Oct. 10 that no agreement has been reached with the city to open the shelter.

CCC confirmed this week that there is still no agreement. In its public statement, CCC stated that it proposed to serve up

to 150 people at that location, but found out later that it would only be paid for operating 60 beds, with three other locations to be paid to operate shelters with 30 beds apiece to create a total of 150 beds.

The 30-bed sites are be located at Fifth Street Baptist Church in North Side and at United Nations Church and the newly founded RVA Sister’s Keeper, both in South Side, according to the city’s plan.

According to CCC’s statement, “We have been waiting for detailed information regarding how the city proposes to coordi- nate access to sites with available beds, how transportation will be ensured should a community member arrive to a site with no occupancy and how a standard level of care will be provided” at the four sites.

“CCC has not committed to operating this model this winter, and we informed the city that a Nov. 15 opening is extremely unlikely,” the statement continued. Nov. 15 is the date that Ms. Hampton projected to City Council that the CCC shelter would open.

Under the city’s plan, the three other shelters are to remain closed until additional money can be found. Sharon Ebert, deputy city administrator for economic development, has stated that publicly.

Despite that, funding was somehow found two weeks ago when a cold snap plunged low temperatures into the 30s. The city, with no public announcement, at the last minute opened temporary spaces at Linwood Robinson Senior Center in Church Hill and at United Nations Church on Cowardin Avenue.

Open for two nights, those spaces only served single adults; families with children were not provided shelter.

“If you have kids, you are on your own,” Ms. Sneed said. “At that meeting, we were told that that the city had no plans to provide a family shelter.”