by Jon Baliles
It was cold at night this week but not as cold as it will soon get, and a warming trend over the next week looks likely (never trust the weather forecast more than 48 hours in advance). That is good news for those who seek a warm place to sleep at night, since the city can’t seem to get its act together in regard to a warm weather shelter. Actually, it’s difficult to discern whether or not the city is having a hard time or if it even gives a damn whether the shelter opens or not.
VPM noted that last week at City Council’s Education and Human Services Committee meeting, Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch said, “We are not meeting our moral obligation. We are failing.”
Since the closing of the city’s main shelter at the Annie Giles Center in Shockoe Valley in 2020 during the pandemic, there has (barely) been a patchwork of band-aid solutions and fits and starts at opening another shelter.
The Free Press reports this week that the city opened two shelters this week as temperatures dropped into the 30’s — one with 50 beds for men and another with 50 for women — but no space allowed for adults with children. And apparently, not many people knew about it.
Mayor Levar M. Stoney and his administration quietly sent email notices to some homeless groups about opening, but refused to issue any public statement in an apparent bid to reduce demand — following the script from the Sept. 30 tropical storm when only 12 homeless people managed to find the unannounced city shelter to get out of the heavy downpour.
Advocacy groups said many people never got notice of the shelters opening and when the announcement was made, “the city waited until 6 p.m. to announce the two shelters had opened an hour earlier” at 5:00pm.
How’s that for government efficiency and compassion?
The Planning Commission just announced (at the Mayor’s orchestration) where the city will spend $77 million in federal pandemic funds between now and the end of 2026, and none of that money is earmarked to help those in need this week or this winter. There are more pressing issues now like getting all hands on deck to fight and lobby and cajole to get a casino back on the ballot next November; but if you need warm shelter, you are out of luck because we need slots and poker tables to help grow and save our City.
Lynch “vented her frustration that both the mayor and council colleagues have ignored the current needs in favor of investing $77 million into building and renovating community centers.”
“I wish I had a $20 million community center coming to my district that I could give up,” she said.
The Free Press also revealed that the committee was told by Sherill Hampton, director of housing and community development, that the earliest a cold-weather shelter might open was Nov. 15.
As it turned out, Ms. Hampton neglected to tell the Education and Human Services Committee on Oct. 13 that she and her staff had not been communicating with the chosen provider, Commonwealth Catholic Charities, which knew nothing about a Nov. 15 opening and had no agreement with the city to operate just 60 beds, instead of the 150 beds that CCC was prepared to provide.
CBS 6 spoke with Commonwealth Catholic Charities (CCC) on Friday who said they were surprised by many of the details that were shared at Thursday’s meeting. They said the proposal they submitted varies significantly from the one presented by the city.
“We originally came forward with a proposal to have one site to provide sufficient space for anyone who would need the service. We can also make sure that we can add additional services,” Brown said
As a partner in the project, they say that very little dialogue has happened between them and Richmond on details of the shelter’s operation.
“The proposal that we submitted is not the proposal that was presented yesterday, publicly, we’ve been asked to amend the service that we propose to provide,” Brown said.
CCC said the proposed start date of November 15 given will likely not happen even if it is approved on November 7. CCC said they want to provide the most efficient facility as quickly as possible for Richmond’s most vulnerable citizens but they feel more conversations need to happen between them, the city and all involved parties.
“I mean, to have a place for people to go every single night, make sure that they can get outside of the cold, have access to support and resources,” Brown said. “We’re just asking that we have the opportunity to sit down at the table with all parties, the city and with the other providers with the Greater Richmond continuum of care so that we all can really hammer out the details of how this is going to work.”
So, no dialogue, a rushed and unrealistic timeline, no back-and-forth discussion (or notice), and altering proposals without consultation. It’s hard to tell if the mayor and his minions who are supposedly “in charge” of this are that incompetent or just don’t give a damn. Take your pick, because it has been going on for months and it appears you will get even money odds on either choice.
To show the level of frustration of those that want to help but are not getting any support or even acknowledgment from the City, The Free Press highlighted the efforts of Rhonda Sneed
… who leads an army of volunteers under the banner of Blessing Warriors to feed and clothe the homeless, issued a Facebook screed harshly criticizing the administration for doing too little to ensure there was adequate shelter and that people in need knew it was available.
She stated at 3 a.m. Wednesday she saw people sitting at bus stops waiting for GRTC service to resume. An hour later, she wrote, “I saw people in wheelchairs shivering, curled up in fetal positions freezing with no covering, people walking aimlessly with no understanding of the dangers of this temperature drop. I’m literally at the end of my rope.”
Ms. Sneed wrote that she saw no evidence of the homeless task force the Stoney administration has boasted conducts outreach to those who need shelter. She stated that she refused to stay silent about the wrongs she felt the city is committing against the most vulnerable. “I’m not shaming the city,” she wrote, “the city is shaming itself.”
VPM’s discussion with Hana Mills, who has been homeless with her fiancé since June and is worried about how long it will take to get a shelter open, sums up the frustration well:
“It’s been freezing cold lately,” Mills said. “They just want to shove us down under the rug and pretend like we don’t exist. But we do. And there’s so many of us.”
“It gets frustrating, and you just want to break down and cry and scream and yell because we’re doing the best we can,” Mills said. “We’re going to where we need to go, we’re calling who we need to call. And still very few people want to help.”
It’s pretty abhorrent to see that those in charge — starting with the Mayor — don’t seem to have any urgency or competence or interest in resolving this issue or helping those most in need as the mercury prepares to plummet.
If only we had approved the casino, all our problems would be solved.
Jon Baliles is a former Richmond city councilman. This column has been republished with permission from his blog RVA 5X5.