With cold temperatures in the forecast, Richmond nonprofits that aid the homeless are readying the region’s new safety net shelter program to open this week.

Keeping with the standard in previous years, the new program will offer emergency beds to people with nowhere else to sleep when temperatures are forecast to drop below 40 degrees. Rather than a traditional shelter setting, the program will run out of a hotel on Midlothian Turnpike, near the Chesterfield County line. Homeless service providers said the arrangement is safer during the ongoing public health crisis.

“The first and foremost thing this year starts with COVID precautions,” said Kelly King Horne, executive director of Homeward, which has helped coordinate the program.

The new shelter program replaces the cold weather overflow shelter at the city-owned Annie Giles Center in Shockoe Valley the last two winters. City officials scrapped the model this year, citing the pandemic and a new strategic plan to end homelessness adopted by the City Council in May.

Since the pandemic began, local homeless shelters have reduced the number of beds available to comply with public health guidance, like social distancing, meant to curb the disease’s spread. Hotels have emerged as a way to get people off the streets without packing them into close quarters.

Locally, homeless service providers have temporarily housed 955 people in hotel rooms since mid-March while the individuals waited for placement in other programs or permanent housing. The average length of stay during this period has been 22 days, according to figures provided by Homeward. The average cost per household is roughly $2,000 monthly.

The safety net program is funded with federal dollars, Horne said. It is an expansion of the model that providers have used since the pandemic began, she said, citing U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidance that recommends using non-congregate spaces for emergency shelter.

During a cold spell at the end of October, a trial run of the new safety net program drew about 120 people, Horne said. The demand filled up the room bloc Homeward has at the South Richmond hotel, and a second bloc at another hotel it booked for overflow capacity.

Beyond addressing COVID-19 concerns, a hotel room offers comfort and privacy that was nonexistent in the previous cold weather shelter setting, said John Dougherty, interim executive director of HomeAgain.

“We’re putting them in beds as opposed to putting them on mats on the floor in the [Giles] Center,” said Dougherty, who has led planning for the program.

Meals are delivered to the hotel three times a day, and on-site case managers work with those who seek out a room to assess their needs and connect them with other services.

The Greater Richmond Continuum of Care — the network of providers that aid the homeless — chose the location after other hotels they contacted declined, and other options they explored didn’t pan out, Horne said.

Earlier this fall, Homeward solicited faith-based organizations around the city about hosting satellite shelters with some emergency beds, but none was interested, Horne said. The owner of the South Richmond hotel was willing to work with the nonprofits and accommodate the homeless population.

Another consideration was the hotel itself; it has outdoor entries for its rooms, and each has separate ventilation. It is also located on a bus line, another factor, she added.

The region’s homeless crisis line will extend its hours to 9 p.m. to handle placements on weeknights when the shelter is scheduled to open. Those in need of emergency shelter should call (804) 972-0813.


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Twitter: @__MarkRobinson