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To expand emergency shelter options, Richmond weighs buying a hotel
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To expand emergency shelter options, Richmond weighs buying a hotel

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City Hall in Richmond, VA was illuminated "Heartbeat Red" after sunset Friday, March 12, 2021, to commorate the lives of 220 city residents lost to the COVID-19 virus.

Facing a surge in homelessness, Richmond wants to buy a hotel to meet the growing need for emergency shelter in the region.

The potential purchase, shared with a council panel last week, is among several options the city is weighing to stand up a year-round inclement weather shelter by this fall, said Sherrill Hampton, Richmond’s new director of housing and community development.

“We have several options so we are exploring several of these options all at once,” Hampton told the council’s Education and Human Services Standing Committee on Thursday. “It is our goal to have an emergency shelter up and running by October 1.”

Hampton did not disclose a specific location; she likewise declined to do so in response to follow-up questions sent via email about the number of sites under consideration and the city’s budget for the initiative.

If the city can buy the building for a “reasonable amount of money,” Hampton said, it would do so later this summer when it receives the federal funds it intends to use for the purchase.

Hampton said the hotel the city is considering was used to shelter the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic. At one point, the region’s network of homeless service providers was housing hundreds of households in more than a dozen hotels scattered around the region.

The number of people experiencing homelessness in the region rose 53%, from 549 to 838, this year, according to preliminary figures from a single-day census conducted in January by the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care. The increase was the largest single-year uptick for the region on record.

At the beginning of this month, 390 households remained in emergency shelters and hotel rooms, according to figures provided by Homeward, the nonprofit that coordinates homeless services for the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care.

Rising rents in a market with few vacant, affordable apartments have stymied efforts to move families experiencing homelessness out of emergency shelters and into permanent housing. For people experiencing homelessness, that has led the average shelter stay to almost double in length over the last year, Hampton said.

“The system is in a bottleneck right now,” she said.

Richmond is mulling other short-term options in addition to purchasing a hotel.

Hampton said the city is in talks with Virginia Union University to temporarily convert the Budget Inn property across from its North Side campus into a shelter location. The university bought the property in late 2019 and announced plans to redevelop it into a mixed-use building that would house some academic programs.

Another option under consideration is converting the old Clark Springs Elementary School in Randolph into permanent supportive housing. The school was shuttered in 2014. In order for that plan to move forward, the Richmond School Board would have to transfer the property to the city’s control, Hampton said. The city is also weighing whether to lease space in a South Richmond shopping center to add emergency beds, she said.

On the same day Hampton shared the options, the council’s Education and Human Services Standing Committee advanced a resolution signaling its support for the use of federal dollars to acquire or develop more emergency shelter units. Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch proposed the measure.

“It demonstrates the great amount of need that we have not only for an emergency shelter but for permanent supportive housing, for affordable housing options and to expand our existing partners’ shelter bed capacity,” Lynch said of Hampton’s presentation to the panel.

The council is scheduled to weigh Lynch’s resolution when it meets Monday.

mrobinson@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6734

Twitter: @__MarkRobinson

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