To advocates for the homeless, a proposed shelter on Richmond’s North Side is a crucial addition for the region’s unhoused.
To neighboring business owners and civic associations, it’s an affront that will dampen the area’s potential and worsen crime.
On the Richmond City Council’s agenda Monday is a special-use permit for a homeless shelter with 97 beds. Seeking the permit is The Salvation Army Central Virginia, which also wants to relocate administrative offices and programming from other facilities it owns in the city to the building at 1900 Chamberlayne Ave.
The council is expected to decide whether its plans move forward this month. However, the area’s representative, council Vice President Chris Hilbert, will not take part in that decision despite opposing the project. Hilbert said he believes the shelter will exacerbate prostitution and crime in the area, and may lead to the closure of a neighboring bank.
Supporters of the shelter said it would reduce the burden on the city’s cold weather overflow shelter during the winter months and meet a major need indicated by the biannual census of the region’s homeless. The survey found that 50% of people living outside would have accepted a shelter bed if one were available.
For single men, there is a three-week wait for shelter beds, said Kelly King Horne, executive director of Homeward, which helps coordinate the region’s services for the homeless.
“It would be transformational,” King Horne said
The Salvation Army stripped 100 beds out of its original plans after pushback from property owners and civic associations. Opponents of the shelter at a Planning Commission meeting, Hilbert among them, said it didn’t align with a 2016 master plan for the area, and worried openly that allowing it would effectively dash any chance the area has to attract future investment.
“We have hopes of a Panera, of a Patient First. We have hopes of dry cleaning services and a florist. Walk down Lombardy [Street] and you’ll see the potential,” said Alesa Hemenway, secretary of the Chamberlayne Industrial Center Association.
After making clear his objections, Hilbert told other council members last week that he would not participate in the body’s debate or vote on the matter.
Hilbert’s wife, Sheila Mandt, worked as the director of development for the Salvation Army’s Richmond region for a short period in the early 2000s. Hilbert shared the link in private conversations about the proposed shelter, but did not publicly disclose it in his critical comments to the city’s Planning Commission, which unanimously endorsed the request last week.
Hilbert’s decision to recuse himself came after he first said in an interview that his wife’s departure from the organization did not color his view of the Salvation Army’s project.
“It’s been so long ago that it’s just not relevant to the issue,” he said, adding that she left the job on good terms. “Because it was so long ago, there’s no conflict related to it.”
Later that day, he changed his tune.
“Out of an abundance of caution, I’m not going to vote on this,” he said in a second interview, citing what he called the potential for an “appearance of a conflict.”
His decision puts his colleagues in an unusual position. Typically, the council defers to the wishes of an area’s representative when it comes to special-use permit requests, even if a project could address an issue of citywide import.
Councilwoman Kimberly Gray said she shared Hilbert’s concerns about opening a shelter on the Chamberlayne Avenue corridor. That he does not support the proposal influenced her view of it, she added.
“He’s closest to the corridor. He’s there. He sees what’s going on.”
Others have signaled a willingness to break with the council’s typical practice for this particular request.
Ellen Robertson, the 6th District councilwoman who also sits on the Planning Commission, said she would support the request when it came up for a vote.
“I’m strongly supportive of this, and I’m strongly supportive of the work that is done by this organization,” Robertson said.
Like Hilbert, other opponents of the shelter at the Planning Commission meeting said they felt it would result in more crime in the area.
The concern is familiar and frustrating to Karen Stanley, president and CEO of CARITAS, a nonprofit that aids people who are homeless and fighting addiction. Property owners are usually loath to have a facility that helps the homeless nearby.
In 2018, a short-lived plan to relocate the city’s cold weather overflow shelter to Manchester was snuffed out in the face of backlash from business owners and residents in the South Richmond neighborhood. Many cited crime as their main concern.
“It’s a misconception of who the homeless are,” Stanley said. “And it’s fear. To me, you have to replace the fear with knowledge.”
The Salvation Army decided to buy the building after a two-year search for a bigger facility. The Chamberlayne Avenue building’s proximity to downtown, where other homeless service providers are clustered, distinguished it from other options, said Stephen Batsche, The Salvation Army Central Virginia’s executive director.
The sale of the building is contingent upon the council approving the special-use permit, he said. It would then undergo a $5 million to $6 million renovation. The charitable organization hopes to move into the building by spring 2021.
The council meets at 6 p.m. Monday.