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Richmond Homelessness Advisory Council Recommends New Resource Center

City Hall
City Hall may soon be getting a new "Community Resource Center" if Richmond's Homelessness Advisory Council gets its way. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Richmond’s Homelessness Advisory Council has issued a final list of recommendations, including creating a one-stop shop for social services in City Hall.

Appointed by Mayor Levar Stoney, the advisory council was made up of twenty members from community non-profits, churches and City Council. It was formed in late December and given 30 days to provide Stoney with recommendations on improving access to housing services.

The Homelessness Advisory Council’s biggest recommendation is the creation of a “Community Resource Center” right on the ground floor of City Hall.

“We want to make a space where anyone can walk in the find answers to your questions about housing, prevention, eviction diversion, how to tap into all of the human services programs and opportunities that may even be beyond homelessness,” said Reggie Gordon, Richmond’s deputy chief administrative officer.

Among their other recommendations are creating more housing for the city’s lowest income residents as well as formalizing partnerships and outlining expectations between the city and homeless service providers.

A study by the Partnership for Housing Affordability found that more than 25% of residents in the Richmond region are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30%of their income on housing. The study also found a shortage of 15,000 housing units for the region’s lowest income residents, or those making less than half of the area median income.

The Homeless Advisory Council also recommended the city or service providers establish a peer support group, composed of people who previously experienced homelessness.

Ricky Martin, now the owner of Fit To Go, is one of those people. Martin was a member of the council and said support and mentorship can be key for some experiencing a crisis.

“Seeing someone else who has gone through the program or gone through the situation or experienced what you experienced, there’s a certain sense of camaraderie, a certain sense of, ‘They aren’t looking down on me, because they’ve been there, too,’” he said.

The council was set up following criticism of how the city responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis. Early on in the pandemic, the city cleared a camp created by people without shelter. The city also closed its congregate cold-weather shelter at the Annie E. Giles Center. It was replaced with a more complicated system where residents have to call a hotline, hoping to get a space at one of a few different motels in Southside.

The new, non-congregate program has been criticized for not quickly responding to people’s housing needs, and for creating more stress and instability for people facing homelessness. Homeward, the organization coordinating the region’s homeless service providers, has denied those allegations.

More recently, advocates chastised the city for removing unsheltered peoples’ belongings from in front of the empty Coliseum ahead of a visit to the VCU Massey Cancer Center by First Lady Jill Biden.

City Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch says she wished the report had gone further, recommending the city create a permanent cold-weather shelter with support services.

“There was a lot that was missing to address the tangible and very real challenges that have come about as a result of shutting down the Annie E. Giles Center,” she said.

Lynch pointed to the Virginia Beach Housing Resource Center as an example of how the resource center recommended in the report could be connected to an actual shelter and rapid rehousing service.

“We need a high quality, permanent shelter model with wraparound service, and we need to codify in our city code the commitment that we are making to individuals experiencing homelessness in our city,” Lynch said.

Given the pandemics affect on tax revenue, it’s unclear whether the advisory council’s recommendations will be included in Richmond’s next budget.

Asked about whether there will be funding for the proposals, Stoney said this week that tough choices are being made as his administration puts together a budget proposal.

“It is a very, very difficult time for the city of Richmond in terms of the impacts we are feeling, because of the pandemic,” he said. “But we will do our best to fund our obligations, and particularly some of those vital investments in affordable housing.”

Stoney will present his FY2022 budget proposal to City Council Friday at 3 p.m.