Inside the overflow shelter for RVA’s homeless

It’s just one way the City and local organizations are trying to make the homeless feel at home.

On nights when the temperature sinks to 40 degrees or below, a group of about 50 men and women gather at 501 North 9th Street, within view of the John Marshall Courthouse. At 7:00 PM, those men and women file into the building, make an immediate right, and enter into a large room where on the floor are 55 foam mats, each twice the thickness of a typical yoga mat, and blankets. This is where they’ll sleep for the night.

“The Overflow Shelter is needed mainly because there are single individuals, after we fill all the beds in the city of Richmond, who are going to be without a place to go,” said Angelia Yancey, Deputy Director for Finance and Administration at the City’s Department of Social Services. “We’re trying to get them out of inclement weather and into a warm place so they’re not adversely impacted by the frigid temperatures, or the inclement weather, which may be snow or ice.”

“Folks can catch colds, get pneumonia, and that’s a costly cost to the state, because often times these are folks who don’t have insurance so they wind up in emergency rooms, and it’s just a ripple effect. So we would rather see them come in and get out of those temperatures and keep them safe from the cold.”

Down the hall from the sleeping quarters are bathrooms shared between men and women. Those who stay the night are only permitted to smoke during two smoke breaks.

The displaced men and women, many of whom use their satchel or backpack for pillows, sleep while a security guard and three volunteers from CARITAS, a local housing and rehabilitation nonprofit that oversees the overflow shelter, keep watch. The following morning at 6:00 AM, the men and women rise, help put their mats back into the closet, and file back out onto 9th Street the way they came.

“The reason why it’s so early in the morning that we dismiss [them], not only just to make sure they’re up and out of the building, but also because the feeding time [at local shelters] is between 6:00 – 9:00 AM,” Yancey said. “So there’s just a very small window of time for them to get to the feeding places.” Several men and women catch a bus at a nearby GRTC stop.

“This is the first year, per se, that the city has offered an overflow shelter under the auspices of the city. Before it was offered by the churches,” Yancey said. “Six Mount Zion [Baptist Church] served us well for a number of years, and they have been the site where folks could just go. So they would see numbers between 90 – 100 folks per night. That was truly a tremendous effort for them.” Six Mount Zion declined to extend their contract with the City, so Social Services took on overflow shelter duties with the assistance of CARITAS.

According to Homeward, the planning and coordinating organization for homeless services in the area, there were 637 adults and 89 children homeless in the Richmond Region as of July. Most were in shelters; 94 spent nights outdoors.1

Here in the city, the number of people now frequenting the overflow shelter nightly closes in on the 55-person capacity.

“This year we’re seeing numbers at about 50, 51 so we’re almost right there, and we’ve had some pretty cold temperatures…so I think we’re pretty much at our peak,” Yancey said.

A last resort during frigid weather, the Overflow Shelter is only a small part of the resources available to Richmond’s displaced. “The homeless shelters have a much larger and broader program in place where they’re housing folks for much longer periods,” Yancey said.

One of the those shelters is the City’s overflow partner, CARITAS.

“Somebody’s child”

“We are the largest homeless service organization [in Richmond],” said Karen Stanley, CEO of the nonprofit, which for the past 25 years has helped families find shelter, employment, and recover from addiction. Its shelter offers 110 beds, with an additional 20 beds located at The Healing Place, its addiction-recovery facility.

“I think people have a misconception about the population that we’re dealing with,” Stanley said. Many, when they think about homeless people, think of a grimy panhandler addicted to drugs and alcohol and who has little interest in improving their circumstances. “That is the mental image that we conjure up as human beings, but that is not the majority of people that we serve,” Stanley said. These “chronically homeless” individuals make up only about 15 percent of the individuals served. “Often times the people that are living outdoors…they’re making a choice,” Stanley said, and are deliberately refusing readily available shelters. “Sometimes we’re successful with them and sometimes we’re not. But we never stop trying.”

Most of the city’s homeless look like our friends and family, just one event away from being displaced. Sometimes it’s a family with working parents, who, after one or both parents are laid off, are soon evicted from their home with nowhere to go. “There are all sorts of reasons people are in crisis,” Stanley said. “Nobody does this because they want to do this.”

In 2004, Commonwealth Catholic Charities created the Homeless Point of Entry. Located at 511 W. Grace Street, the entry point allows volunteers to conduct an intake process for homeless individuals and families to find out what services they may need and to direct them to those services.

“These are individuals who are somebody’s child, somebody’s mother, maybe somebody’s father,” said Angelia Yancey. “And if we did not have identification for them, and they were on the streets somewhere, we would have a very hard time identifying them if something happened to them.”

After documenting those individuals, CCC works to coordinate their placement with other local agencies based on each person’s need.2 If there are single individuals who do not have an assigned shelter bed during frigid temperatures because all beds in the city are filled, they are referred to the overflow shelter.3

Fnding shelter for individuals and families is only part of how the City and local organizations try to ebb homelessness. In addition to the rehabilitative services that agencies like CARITAS provide, the new Center for Workforce Innovation will help individuals learn a trade and find employment.

“It’s one our newest initiatives where we are helping individuals who are displaced, unemployed to get to permanent employment as well,” Yancey said. She added that participants in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which replaced the Food Stamps program, also qualify for a supplemental employment and training program. Yancey said displaced Richmonders in the SNAP program can use the new Center for Workforce Innovation Center to learn a trade. The City then connects them with local employers for jobs.

It’s a lofty ideal, one that will undoubtedly work for many in the coming years. But Richmond, like all urban cities, will always have homeless individuals who ask for change and food, but who’ll never ask for the services both the City and its charities provide.

“There are some people who obviously suffer from illnesses, whether it be physical or mental illnesses, and who are just very, very scarred from life’s wounds and who would rather try to make it on their own in the elements than to try to be anywhere with anyone’s help,” Yancey said. “All we can do is reach out to them. We can’t force anyone to do anything, but we do try to let them know that we’re here.”

“Everybody has a story”

Richmonders can let the homeless know that Richmond is here, by donating to both the City and local organizations like CARITAS.

In addition to providing addiction-recovery and sheltering services, CARITAS also operates a furniture bank it uses as stock for rehoused individuals. “We repurpose everything we can get our hands on, including mattresses,” Stanley said. Mattresses go through a bed bug oven before being passed along. “Our furniture is at a critical low,” she said. She asked that Richmonders with unneeded furniture to please donate those items, adding that CARITAS can pick up those items.

Stanley also recommended how people help panhandlers. “Don’t give to panhandlers, because they’re probably feeding an addiction,” she said. “Don’t hand somebody cash, because it could be the last thing they [use to buy drugs or alcohol and] put in them before they die.”

There are also professional panhandlers. “The reality is some panhandlers are making $10,000 – $15,000 a year off your heartstrings,” Stanely said. But there’s more people can give than money. “It’s never a problem to give somebody food if they’re hungry.”

Angelia Yancey of the City’s Department of Social Services said that the area’s homeless and Overflow Shelter can also benefit from people’s generosity.

“We’d love it if they would be willing to provide hats, gloves, scarves, so when [the homeless] leave here at 6:00 AM they are able to cover their heads to keep their body heat and body temperatures [up] and they’re able to go out into the elements and not be harmed,” Yancey said. People may bring donations to 900 E. Marshall Street during regular business hours.

“Also, help the sister agencies such as Homeward, Commonwealth Catholic Charities with their ongoing efforts and donate to them, and help them expand their programs and services.”

Yancey believes people can sometimes be too quick to assume they know what caused a person’s homelessness.

“Everybody has a story. And I think the biggest misconception people have is that we all think we know what the story is when we look at the individual,” Yancey said. “We don’t know what causes a person to be homeless. We don’t know if it was on their own accord or if it was just some really bad things that happened.”

“But we do know that they’re human and they deserve our care and our concern,” Yancey said. “And I believe Richmond is a city that cares.”


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  1. Months earlier, in January 2013, Homeward counted 885 adults and 114 children homeless. Of them, 170 were staying outdoors or in the overflow shelter. 
  2. For instance, an individual who suffers from addiction will likely be sent to The Healing Place for help, rather than to CARITAS’s shelter. 
  3. However, a city spokesman said the overflow shelter will not turn away anyone without a referral whom is in need of a bed. 

photo by Whisle

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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