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Richmond region records largest single-year spike in homelessness with 50% increase
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Richmond region records largest single-year spike in homelessness with 50% increase

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HOMELESS GROUP

Two homeless people and their dog were stationed at the corner of Dock and 14th streets in Richmond on Oct. 31.

Rhonda Sneed, who helped establish the encampment for the homeless in Shockoe Bottom, in Richmond, Va., serves food to them Mon., March 16, 2020. Some of the homeless packed up as outreach workers helped them to move to other locations after the city cited COVID-19 fears. Video by Alexa Welch Edlund/Times-Dispatch

The number of people experiencing homelessness in the Richmond area rose more than 50% over the past year, according to preliminary figures from an annual census of the region’s homeless population.

The increase — from 549 to 838 people — is the largest single-year spike since the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care began tracking the number in the 1990s. The most recent federally mandated head count, conducted at the end of January, confirmed fears that the COVID-19 pandemic had spurred a sharp rise in homelessness locally.

“Sadly, it’s not surprising because we know that homelessness is a sign of economic and housing conditions in the community,” said Kelly King Horne, executive director of Homeward, the region’s coordinating agency for homeless services.

The figures include people staying in shelters or sleeping outside in the city and the town of Ashland, as well as Charles City, Chesterfield, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, New Kent and Powhatan counties.

When the pandemic gripped the region last March, city officials, nonprofits that aid the homeless, and advocates worried that job losses would lead to unparalleled housing insecurity. More than 4,400 people within three days of losing their homes called the region’s homeless crisis line last calendar year, according to data provided by Homeward.

Court closures, state and federal protections for renters and homeowners, increased unemployment benefits, and millions in rental and mortgage relief aimed to help residents stay housed as the public health crisis wore on. Those measures helped avert an even steeper increase, King Horne said.

At the outset of the pandemic, the region’s network of homeless service providers scrambled to move those sleeping outside into hotels around the region. That effort expanded last fall to include people with nowhere to sleep on nights with inclement weather or sub-40 degree temperatures in the forecast.

On the night of the census, 98 people who were counted slept outdoors, a decrease from 130 in the previous year. That same night, 450 others slept in hotel rooms made available through the emergency shelter program or on air mattresses in the city’s safety net shelter, which is now operating out of a hotel ballroom.

Millions in federal CARES Act money, and some local funds, have covered the cost of the hotel program. It is tentatively slated to run into June, King Horne said. More federal aid for homeless services is expected in the next federal stimulus package, she added.

This is the second consecutive year the region has registered an increase in its homeless population. From January 2019 to January 2020, there was a 10% increase, from 497 to 549 people. At the time, that was the largest increase in a decade.

This year’s count is the highest since 2014, when 846 people were without permanent shelter around the region, according to figures provided by Homeward.

The count includes only those sleeping in shelter programs or observed by outreach workers sleeping outside on a single night. It does not tally people who lost housing and subsequently moved in with a relative or friend. Nor does it capture all people sleeping in cars or living in hotels that aren’t a part of the region’s emergency shelter program.

The increase comes as the region’s apartment market has constricted. The metropolitan area’s residential vacancy rate has tightened in the past year from 5.1% to 2.7%, meaning finding apartments that people with limited income can afford is difficult, King Horne said.

That trend has made getting people who are experiencing homelessness back into permanent housing harder than ever, King Horne said. And as a result, “people can’t move out of homelessness as quickly as they could have, even last year,” she said.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration convened a Homelessness Advisory Council last month to study issues facing the region’s homeless service system.

Reggie Gordon, the city’s deputy chief administrative officer for human services who is heading up the effort, said the sharp rise shows the need for the region to increase its supply of deeply affordable homes.

“Affordable housing is the panacea to this problem,” Gordon said.

The advisory council is scheduled to issue recommendations later this month.

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