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Patchwork homelessness services leading to stress, instability

Congregate living setup at a Quality Inn. Photo from City of Richmond

During the pandemic, the city of Richmond has given service providers millions of federal dollars to offer temporary shelter in hotels and motels, but residents say they still don’t have stable places to go.

City officials and representatives are pointing fingers at those nonprofits and the leader of a planned Homeless Advisory Council claims many houseless residents just don’t want help.

Ivory Lewis is homeless and has been staying at a Southside motel over the last two weeks. He says the system has been nerve-wracking and unstable.

“Every week we’re getting an episode of — they’re putting us out, just telling us we gotta go. Then we have to call back and re-sign up,” Lewis said. “I don't have no family members. My daughters, they live out of state. Nobody. No friends to go to their house to stay for seven days so that I can at least stay seven more days in another hotel, but they're just putting us out.”

Lewis said his enrollment in Medicaid has been keeping him going. In 2022, he and other Medicaid recipients will be eligible for a new state program offering additional  housing and employment services to people with certain health demands who experience chronic homelessness, serious mental illness or substance use disorder, and frequent emergency department visits.

He said he’s been able to secure a motel stay in Southside for seven days at a time, as long as he checks in with service providers for a weekly evaluation. But others at that same motel say they’ve been asked to vacate suddenly, and  Lewis said people staying there are being told to leave and call the homeless crisis line to re-register. He added that the instability is affecting his mental health.

“I'm just in depressed mode right now,” Lewis said. “I don't have the energy to give myself a break to go out and just walk and get myself a break. I have called several times and no one has called me back yet.”

Marvin Green, part of the Richmond Urban Ministry Institute that oversees the motel program, said Lewis is, “not being kicked out, that’s the wrong language that he’s using when he’s calling you.” Although several residents seem worried they’ll have nowhere to go, Green said it’s just a misunderstanding and that Lewis is being transferred to a different motel. 

The motel he and others are being transferred to is on a main bus line and offers advantages over the Southside location. But houseless people relying on this shelter didn’t get the memo. And neither did the grassroots organizers who have been offering people food, harm reduction supplies and clothes during their stays. 

This new location will continue offering isolated accommodations to people in high-risk categories and families with small children. But as a result of high demand, others will be placed in a more concentrated setting.

The concentrated setting will take the place of the cold weather shelter, which was operated at the Annie Giles Center before the pandemic, but it still won’t have walk-in access. Instead, people will have to call a homeless crisis line operated by nonprofit Homeward,  undergo evaluations and subject themselves to strict supervision. 

Callers are usually met with a voicemail recording instead of a human, which creates an additional barrier for people in crisis seeking emergency shelter. A number of sources have confirmed this with VPM. 

According to a city presentation, as of last October, Homeward and other partners were given $6 million in federal CARES Act dollars to implement the motel program, crisis line and wraparound services. 

Homeward Director Kelly King Horne defended her agency, while acknowledging that they didn’t have enough staff. They’ve increased staffing of the homeless crisis line over the last few months, and added some part-timers, bringing the total number of operators to 12. Critics have said it can take days to secure shelter. King Horne  agreed that not everyone gets a hold of a person on the line, but claimed turnaround time for intake isn’t more than one business day. 

“It's not perfect, but our goal is to return a phone call within one business day,” King Horne said. “We do now have a technology system that captures the voice messages. And so we can in turn prioritize people experiencing homelessness and return calls.”

In December, Fourth District Councilmember Kristen Larson requested a full accounting of the motel program, including a line-item budget. She said she’s hoping that it could highlight a possible problem and solution. But the document the nonprofit provided was incomplete. 

“I got something, but not enough detail,” Larson said. “It’s just not a detailed budget.”

Last week, VPM asked King Horne about the status of fulfilling that request. She says her agency isn't accountable to City Council.

“We are using federal funds. I don't report to a council member. Like, I'm not sure what you're talking about. I report on the funding, the federal funding. And I provide that to the funder as dictated in the contract and upon request,” King Horne said. “I think you are missing the picture of the work that is happening and the people who are being served.”

But a top city official, Reggie Gordon, said that federal oversight isn’t happening, because the city has been operating under “crisis mode” during the pandemic and has helped Homeward skirt the formal process. 

“Homeward has literally emailed or called to say, 'we're burning $600,000 during X amount of time, and if we don't get another,’  —  like I'm just making this number up —  ‘X amount of hundreds, we might have a problem.' And so that's, when in turn we say, okay, let's find some CARES Act dollars,” Gordon said. 

Last month, the mayor called on city officials to put together a Homeless Advisory Council. Gordon, Richmond’s deputy chief administrative officer of human services, will lead its discussions over a span of 30 days. He said it’s set to meet in a couple of weeks to review the city’s strategic plan, talk with national and state leaders in homelessness services and evaluate current resources. 

Gordon said the city has long known that people experiencing homelessness face significant challenges in getting help. People VPM spoke with said sometimes the intake process is too onerous, or they don’t have reliable ways to receive call backs, or they just need help faster than a day turn-around. Gordon said they just don’t want to follow the rules, but agreed they still need help, pointing to the process that established the overflow shelter roughly 20 years ago.

“The council said, all right, there are people who don't want to play by the rules. We don't want them on the street. So, let's just do an overflow shelter,” Gordon said.

But that system is what the city scrapped in response to COVID-19 exposure fears. Instead, people have to enter the service provider model: undergo evaluation, commit to check-in and out times and be subject to heavy supervision. And, they have to be able to get a call back from the Homeward crisis line.

“When someone goes into a hotel, we need case managers to walk in and virtually or physically sit down with the person, understand their life story, figure out if they have any income, if they have any family members that they could go back to,” Gordon said. 

Gordon acknowledged a need for more staffing in outreach and counseling, but claimed many individuals just don’t want the type of help the city offers.

“There are shelter beds, but they don’t match the way you want to live your life,” Gordon said.

Experts have said that offering services that aren’t accessible to people with mental health or substance use disorders, like the city and its nonprofits are doing now, doesn’t work.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness calls for a housing first model, where services are tailored to individuals instead of the one-size-fits-all model Richmond is using. As does a broad consensus of experts, and even the Department of Housing and Urban Development

Although Gordon said there were beds for all, another city official said there aren’t enough resources to meet rising demand in an email update on the state of homelessness.

Sharon Ebert wrote, “Given the growing number of persons experiencing homelessness in the City and surrounding counties, please be aware that the funding that we have provided to Homeward and the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care providers was based on serving up to approximately 500 individuals on a daily basis and will not be enough to provide services to all of our homeless population as the number grows daily.” 

Fifth District City Councilmember Stephanie Lynch said she thinks there should be a consistent inclement weather shelter, like the one that existed up until last year, which operates in warmer temperatures, too.

“I think all of us agree that what we are doing now is not necessarily the best way for the people that we're trying to serve,” Lynch said. “There are some process and systems issues, some management issues that we have to really look at.” 

Lynch and Ninth District Councilmember Ellen Roberton will also serve on the advisory council. While other members have not been publicly announced, Gordon said he wants to find persons who have personally experienced homelessness, or family members of someone who has, to offer perspective in shaping an action plan going forward.

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