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Data: Amid scarcity, unhoused people in Richmond sought fewer services

United Nations Church building and sidebar logo "Love God Love People"
Scott Elmquist
VPM News
Richmond City planned to have four shelters by winter 2022, rather than a single site with 150 beds.

New, dispersed inclement weather shelter plan caused delays in services.

On the night of Jan. 25, homelessness service providers fanned out across Richmond and several Central Virginia localities to count how many people were without housing that night. The “point in time” count, released in early March, indicated more people were spending it outdoors than any time in the past 15 years.

Most of those experiencing homelessness outdoors — in vehicles, tents or on the street — were in Richmond City, according to homelessness service providers. Data obtained by VPM News shows that on most nights inclement weather shelters were open, like Jan. 25, no people were turned away. However, extra beds provided by a planned-but-never-opened inclement weather shelter could have accommodated those who were on other days throughout the winter.

Richmond planned to have four shelters by winter 2022, rather than a single site with 150 beds. The city opened two shelters operated by NGOs two weeks after the target opening date of Nov. 1 set by a request for proposal.

The new, dispersed shelter plan caused the delays in opening shelters, a city spokesperson told VPM News at the time. Petula Burks wrote in an email that the plan would have allowed for easier access during inclement weather.

The 60-bed shelter at the United Nations Church in Southside Richmond was at capacity for 17 days between Dec. 4 and Dec. 31, the period for which VPM News obtained data. The same shelter was at capacity for 14 days in January. People were turned away from the shelter 103 times in December and 21 times in January.

That shelter, which is for men, and a second, 40-bed location run by RVA Sisters Keeper for women and families, were two of the planned four shelters operating by December. A third shelter with 60 beds, run by Commonwealth Catholic Charities, opened with limited capacity on Dec. 22. The fourth at 5th Street Baptist Church did not open at all due to a late start in the process of opening the shelter, according to Craig Watson, a church administrator.

“As a church, we were saddened we couldn’t do more this season,” Watson said. 5th Street Baptist is moving forward with plans to open its shelter on Nov. 1 instead.

Once the CCC shelter opened, fewer total people were turned away across the system, although a spokesperson for the organization said in January a total of 28 individuals were turned away. January also had warmer weather than December. December’s lows were below freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit) for more than half of the month. January’s lows dipped below freezing five times.

The number of people seeking beds also increased when capacity was higher, pointing to a possibility that some people experiencing homelessness didn’t seek out services when they were scarce.

While the data wasn’t conclusive in this regard, Michael Rogers, programs director at Homeward, said it was a “reasonable assumption” that people perhaps didn’t bother going to shelters after hearing they were already full.

Colder weather created higher demand, though. On the night of Dec. 12, 22 people were turned away, when the low was 37 F. A family of four was turned away on Dec. 21 from RVA Sisters Keeper — when the low was 22 F.

“We do see more people come to the door during evenings when it's especially cold, and also when it's wet,” said Christine Elwell, director of supportive housing and homeless services at Commonwealth Catholic Charities. “Depending on the temperature, we may not have 60 people lining up right at 5 o'clock. So, we may still have capacity at 7 o'clock. It just depends on the given night.”

The data also shows that when temperatures were low, more people experiencing homelessness turned to shelters — and that more people were served when more shelters were open. When a person is turned away, it doesn’t necessarily mean they do not eventually find a bed.

During the coldest stretch of Richmond’s winter, a noncongregate shelter operated by RVA Sisters Keeper was opened in a hotel between Dec. 23 and Jan. 14. Typically, about 20 or more rooms are available for families, older adults and medically vulnerable individuals.

Elwell said that people lined up to have a spot at the CCC shelter before 5 p.m., when it opens, to ensure access to a bed. (Daytime programs wrap up, medical appointments end and other city services, such as libraries, close at that time.) She said 40% of the individuals that regularly stay in the CCC shelter have been in the organization’s system for long periods of time and have significant disabilities. Elwell also said that these individuals will need significant support to “exit that situation.”

When shelters are at capacity, staff use informal connections and relationships with other shelter managers to find people an available bed, Elwell said, and they will travel to the new shelter via public transit or rideshare to arrive at the new shelter.

“There's a correlation between what you're seeing now and the point-in-time numbers, and the aftermath of the pandemic, and the drought and the resources that have really dried up,” Elwell said. “As a community, we need to think strategically and provide very intentional investments to help prevent people from experiencing homelessness in the first place. So, that then you can utilize your homeless services system to truly support individuals who are most in need.”

Currently, Richmond City Council is considering a budget proposal from Mayor Levar Stoney that would expand homelessness services — including hiring a second homelessness services liaison, and $5.7 million for a 24-hour shelter.

A city spokesperson didn’t return an email with questions by press time.

“We have more beds, but we've seen a rise. So, like other cities, we're seeing more and more people who are ending up houseless,” Stoney told VPM News at an affordable housing event last week. “Obviously, we want to make sure that we are taking care of those who are most in need. And the best way to do that is working with a number of our partners.”

The city does not fund homelessness services directly. Instead, it goes through NGOs and coalitions of groups, like the ones that run the inclement weather shelters.

“We can house individuals in the coldest months, but how do we go beyond that for more of a 12 month-a-year, around-the-clock sort of service?” Stoney asked.

Housing prices are among the principal drivers of homelessness. The average rent for the City of Richmond was $1,260 in 2022, up from $911 in 2010. And while Richmond has added 41% of its total multifamily units (an industry term for apartments) in the past decade, renters typically pay $150 more for housing built in 2010 or later.

Jahd Khalil covers Virginia state politics for VPM News.