Survey shows decrease in Metro Richmond’s homeless population, but effects of the pandemic still echo

CARITAS (Leah Hincks for the Henrico Citizen)
A recent survey showed a slight decrease in people experiencing homelessness locally, but officials worry that the COVID-19 pandemic has eroded years of progress that had been made on the problem.
The July survey, conducted by local advocacy agency Homeward, reported that 699 people in the Richmond area are experiencing homelessness, compared to the January 2021 count of 834 people.
Still, the number of people in the Richmond area who are experiencing homelessness is 42% higher than the pre-pandemic number.
Problems that emerged during the pandemic “erased about 10 years worth of work,” said Paul Woodard, the adult protective services supervisor at the Henrico Department of Social Services.
The path to homelessness is often complex, Woodard said. It can be a combination of poverty, lack of personal support and bad luck, he said.
“Sometimes life will throw you not just one wrench, but a whole toolbox of wrenches,” Woodard said.
There is a widespread misconception that people who are experiencing homelessness have all made terrible life choices to get to where they are, said Kristin Riddick, a case manager at Housing Families First, a Henrico shelter.
But Riddick’s clients have become homeless for an array of reasons, from incarceration to losing their job because of a pregnancy. Now, they are struggling to find new places to live.
‘We won’t build our way out of this’
While there is a deep need in the Richmond area and nationwide for affordable housing, the problem extends deeper, said Beth Vann-Turnbull, the executive director at Housing Families First. People need to be paid a living wage high enough to afford any housing at all, she said.
“We won’t build our way out of this,” Vann-Turnbull said. “We need more affordable housing and we need people who can pay market rate for housing, and that is a living wage issue.”
The housing shortage has been building for years and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the issue. The financial instability during the early stages of the pandemic caused widespread job loss, leading to increased homelessness. Now, with housing prices rising, there is less affordable housing available and a higher need than ever.
Homeward’s July Point in Time count was conducted in one day and intended to estimate the number of people experiencing homelessness in the greater Richmond area on a given day.
The recent drop in people experiencing homelessness is a result of local shelters having received more funding, allowing them to open to their pre-pandemic capacities. With a sense of normalcy returning, shelters are hoping to accelerate their placement of residents into long-term housing.
To be considered homeless in the Richmond area, people must be three days away or less from exhausting all of their resources. By the time they find a bed in a shelter, they are often already on the street.
Shelters help those experiencing homelessness who need assistance the most desperately. The discouraging reality is that often that means aiding people who already have depleted their resources.
Housing Families First (Leah Hincks for the Henrico Citizen)
Finding hope
After arriving in a shelter, securing stable housing is critical, especially if a person is dealing with addiction or other problems, said Kelly King Horne, Homeward’s executive director.
When a person is in stable housing, “hope seems achievable,” Horne said.
That approach is not only more respectful of the person seeking help, she said, but in the long term more practical financially for local governments, agencies and advocates. Ultimately, she said, there is a lower cost and better results, if, for example, people don’t bounce between shelters, jails and rehabilitation programs.
Working to ensure that as many people as possible are being assisted in finding stable housing is the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care, which connects homeless services in the area.
Among the networks involved in the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care is CARITAS. CARITAS is a low-barrier shelter, meaning that it will accept anyone, even if they are under the influence of drugs or if they have been previously convicted of a crime.
“We are filling in gaps that no one else is filling,” said Megan Wilson, a spokesperson for CARITAS.
CARITAS comprises five programs, including recovery services, transitional housing, workforce development training and a furniture bank. Recently, the organization has expanded its emergency shelter program.
CARITAS hired two full-time staff to assist residents at the shelter in finding long-term housing.
Getting into affordable housing already is complicated, Wilson said. People who are experiencing homelessness might have mental or physical illnesses. They might have no transportation, no family to lean on and no time. Finding long-term housing in these conditions is nearly impossible, she said.
CARITAS staff members are adept in the process of finding housing and have access to the resources needed to ensure that shelter residents are successful in their hunt for housing. They use connections in the community to find available housing and draw from a CARITAS fund that helps cover such expenses as application fees and back rent.
The goal is to support residents while they seek housing that meets their needs and to help them see a vision of where they want to go.
Working in this area is demanding and heavy, but worth the pressure, said Riddick of Housing Families First.
“I live for the moment when I can look a mom in the eye and tell her, ‘You’re no longer homeless,’” Riddick said. “She’s got a place that she can make birthday cakes for her kids. . . it’s just beautiful.”The post Survey shows decrease in Metro Richmond’s homeless population, but effects of the pandemic still echo first appeared on The Henrico Citizen.

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