If it is forecast to be 39 degrees overnight, Richmond opens its hypothermia shelter.
If it is forecast to be 41 degrees overnight, the shelter remains locked, and dozens of people who turn to it as a last resort must sleep outside.
Members of the Richmond City Council said they want to re-examine the guidelines governing the shelter, which stipulate a 40-degree threshold for its opening and provide no exceptions for inclement weather. Prompting the reconsideration is a 91-tent encampment that grew in the shelter’s shadow over the past three months and the fierce advocacy it has stoked for the region’s most vulnerable residents.
“The sooner the better,” said Cynthia Newbille, the council president. “I’m open to doing that as soon as possible.”
“Forty-five is cold. Forty-five and rainy is cold,” said Michael Jones, the 9th District councilman.
“Why not?” said Reva Trammell, the 8th District councilwoman, when asked whether Richmond should open the hypothermia shelter on a nightly basis for the remainder of winter. “Get them off the street and give them a place to lay their heads.”
The number of people sleeping in homeless shelters or outdoors in the Richmond region rose from 497 to 549 this year, according to results from a biannual census conducted last month. The 10% jump is the first increase in nine years. It came as the largest homeless encampment in recent memory grew on the doorstep of the cold weather shelter in Shockoe Valley.
Asked about the tents, council members said the situation warranted swift action, but also showed the need for more dollars for long-term solutions to homelessness.
The shelter on Oliver Hill Way is open through Monday night, with temperatures forecast to drop below 40 degrees. Biting cold returned as Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration is determining how to help the dozens of people living in the tents move out of the encampment.
At a meeting held Friday, city officials, nonprofit leaders and volunteers working at the encampment discussed holding on-site intake this week to steer people living in the tents toward shelter and wrap-around services.
The most pressing question — where people living in the tents could be moved indoors immediately, if not the city-owned shelter adjacent to the encampment — remained open.
“We’re still trying to figure that out,” said Kelly King Horne, executive director of Homeward, a nonprofit that coordinates the region’s homeless service providers and is working closely with the Stoney administration and other nonprofits to find housing or shelter for the people living there.
A call to Reggie Gordon, Stoney’s deputy chief administrative officer for human services, was not returned Friday afternoon.
Some living in the encampment reject the city shelter even when it is open. Sleeping there means sharing close quarters with others they may barely know and sacrificing privacy. Partners must separate. Food is forbidden. Belongings and pets aren’t allowed, either.
None of those restrictions applies in the tents, where faith-based group Blessing Warriors RVA has led outreach efforts. Stoney’s administration asked the group to remove the tents at the end of last year, citing health and safety concerns. The encampment rose on property owned by Virginia Commonwealth University.
When Blessing Warriors refused, city and VCU officials privately discussed clearing out the encampment and fencing off the land. “No trespassing” signs bearing city insignia went up at the end of January.
Earlier this month, the people living in the tents demanded immediate assurances from city officials the encampment would not be removed without first providing shelter for all who are living there. The city has since pledged to help the men and women living there find “stable housing as quickly as possible.”
Tensions between the city and the outreach group have diminished since then. Blessing Warriors representatives took part in the Friday meeting, the first of several planned for a task force Homeward convened to assist those living in the encampment.