More deeply affordable housing.
A new walk-in resource center at City Hall.
Tighter oversight of agencies aiding those experiencing homelessness.
These were among the recommendations Richmond’s Homelessness Advisory Council made in a report Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration released Wednesday. The 20-person task force outlined steps local leaders should take to meet the long-term needs of the region’s homeless population and assist the network of providers aiding them.
“Until we adequately expand the accessibility of affordable housing, these service providers fight a never-ending, uphill battle,” Stoney said at a virtual media briefing marking the report’s release.
The report came on the heels of the Stoney administration clearing a homeless encampment at the Richmond Coliseum last week. Unsheltered people who witnessed the removal said it happened without warning. City officials disputed those accounts. The situation prompted an outcry from advocates and volunteer groups, who said it was the latest example of the city’s mistreatment of its most vulnerable residents.
Stoney announced plans to form the council late last year. At the time, complaints mounted about the city’s treatment of people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic and Richmond’s decision not to open its hypothermia shelter for the first time in two decades.
City officials and some members of the homelessness advisory council praised the job the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care and its coordinating agency, Homeward, have done to respond to the public health crisis. One of the report’s recommendations is to “highlight” the work the service providers do.
“The system works, and I think it works a lot better here than in some of the largest cities,” said Ricky Martin, a member of the council who was formerly homeless and now owns his own fitness business.
Others who took part in the monthlong process questioned the group’s focus on fixes that hinge on new local funding, rather than how the existing system could improve the region’s ongoing emergency response.
Over the past year, the city has spent millions in federal dollars to shelter hundreds of people in hotel rooms around the region. The approach has drawn criticism from some on the City Council and advocates in the community, who have said it has made accessing shelter challenging for many, and those who need the most support have not received it even if they’re able to get a roof over their heads temporarily.
The ongoing public health crisis contributed to Richmond’s decision not to open a cold-weather shelter for the first time in two decades. Instead, people have slept in the so-called safety net shelter, a hotel ballroom that opens on nights with inclement weather or sub-40-degree temperatures.
The council’s 32-page report does not delve into issues that have arisen with the programs, said Stephanie Lynch, the 5th District city councilwoman who served on the homelessness advisory council.
“This was a forward-looking group that was focused on taking a macro-perspective looking at solutions we’re going to get in place after the cold weather lifts,” Lynch said. “Certainly that is not to forget that there have been challenges this winter that we’ve dealt with.”
The council’s work unfolded amid news of the largest single-year spike in homelessness since the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care began tracking the figure in the 1990s.
Between January 2020 and January 2021, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the Richmond region rose from 549 to 838, according to preliminary figures from the annual point-in-time-count conducted earlier this year. Officials have said economic fallout stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic was the primary driver of the 53% increase.
While some members of the city task force were formerly homeless, the lived experiences of people trying to navigate the system currently did not guide the council’s discussions, said Alex Wagaman, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor of social work and member of the council.
“I wish we had gotten more perspectives, like what’s actually happening on the ground right now and were able to see those immediate needs, in addition to the long-term needs, and be able to address both,” Wagaman said.
Additionally, Wagaman and Lynch said they were interested in seeing stronger accountability measures for the agencies in the Continuum of Care. The report also recommends drafting a new memorandum of understanding in the next 90 days.
Stoney is scheduled to present his budget to the council Friday. Asked how much money his spending plan would include to execute the recommendations, he did not specify a figure.
Said Stoney, “We’re going to do our best to meet our obligations, but we are working with a tougher environment fiscally than we have in years past.”