Local orgs use emergency funding to shelter those affected by COVID-19

Despite flooding, water bottles were set outside of a tent in Cathy's Camp in February. The camp has since been removed. Photo by Megan Lee

Katharine DeRosa, Staff Writer

Richmond organizations providing resources for the homeless population are using state emergency funding to serve a growing number of people seeking assistance during the novel coronavirus outbreak. For local nonprofit Homeward, it’s a struggle to keep up with every claim.

Kelly King Horne, spokesperson for Homeward, said the funds have been extremely useful in providing resources to people experiencing homelessness in the Richmond area.

“The most helpful thing about it is that it’s aligned with what we already are doing,” Horne said. 

Gov. Ralph Northam announced a $2.5 million emergency fund plan for people experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity amid the spread of COVID-19 on April 3. According to the release, the funds provide for hotel and motel vouchers, food, cleaning supplies, and medical transportation.

Homeward aims to connect people experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity with resources, such as shelter and food. The nonprofit has been providing services to Richmond’s homeless population since 1998, but Horne said it is now helping a larger population affected by COVID-19.

“We’re moving lightning fast, but the crisis is right now,” Horne said.

Horne said many of Richmond’s shelters are relatively small, only holding 20 to 30 people, which makes social distancing easier.

At Richmond’s homeless shelters, volunteers and workers check for COVID-19 symptoms upon entry. They ask questions and take temperatures if deemed necessary, Horne said, and follow sanitization guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The guidelines include washing surfaces with soap and water before disinfecting, and then using a product on the approved list of disinfectants from the Environmental Protection Agency. If those products are not available, diluted bleach or at least 70% alcohol solutions may be used as a disinfectant, according to the CDC.

Although Northam’s emergency funding included vouchers for hotel and motel stays, Horne said an organization’s first instinct should be to provide access to shelters, where people can be more easily assessed for COVID-19 symptoms. 

Hotel and motel vouchers are useful in cases where people need to self-isolate, Horne said.

Horne said Daily Planet Health Services, a partner of Homeward located near VCU’s campus at 517 W. Grace St., has been providing extended health services to Richmonders during this time.

DPHS is offering COVID-19 assessment and testing when deemed necessary until April 17, according to a list of services on its website, available for existing patients, people experiencing homelessness, people living or working in shelters, patients of Richmond safety net clinics and uninsured patients.

Caritas, another Richmond-based organization, is one of the largest shelter programs providing assistance to the homeless population, Horne said.

In a video from the organization, President and CEO Karen Stanley outlined changes made to the Caritas shelter to control the spread of COVID-19.

“We’re still on the front lines providing shelter and recovery services, but in a little bit of a different way,” Stanley said.

Caritas is increasing cleaning procedures by disinfecting high touch surfaces such as restrooms, door handles, telephones and eating surfaces, according to its website.

The Healing Place for men and the Caritas men’s shelters suspended new intakes to ensure the safety of people there, Stanley said.

The Healing Place shelter provides assistance to those with drug and alcohol related issues. The program is currently only available for men, but Caritas is working on developing one for women, according to its website.

The women’s shelters are now being housed by one of Caritas’ partners to provide stability, Stanley said.

In a video from Caritas, Chief Operations Officer Karen O’Brien said her organization has “stepped up” in terms of providing resources for those affected by COVID-19.

O’Brien said Caritas has set up a temperature protocol in conjunction with CDC guidelines. If either staff or patients have a temperature over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, they are referred to Daily Planet Health Services.

All clients and staff at The Healing Place are now wearing masks and have posted about it on Facebook, O’Brien said.

O’Brien said Caritas is working to improve mental health and morale by getting time outside, specifically in the form of “fun days” on Fridays for the people at The Healing Place.

Caritas purchased cornhole and frisbee as outdoor activities for The Healing Place on Fridays, O’Brien said.

“It’s been a very busy time and I couldn’t be prouder of our partners or our staff,” O’Brien said.

On March 19, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney restricted access to Camp Cathy, an encampment in Church Hill that was home to nearly 100 people, the Richmond-Times Dispatch reported.

On Oliver Hill Way, Camp Cathy had more than 90 tents, despite flooding and pushback from Richmond City Council. The camp has since been removed. Photo by Megan Lee

Reggie Gordon, Richmond’s deputy chief administrative officer for human services, said in an email that another encampment was not on the books for Richmond.

“The camp on VCU property next to the Giles Center posed a public health threat to those that lived there, one that was only exacerbated and heightened by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Gordon said of Camp Cathy.

A community in Tampa, Florida, has built an encampment similar to Camp Cathy amid the spread of COVID-19 called “Hillsborough Hope.” According to an article from local outlet WTSP, that site is utilizing the open air to enforce social distancing. 

To volunteer or make a donation toward helping Richmond’s homeless population during COVID-19, visit handsonrva.org/coronavirus.

A section of this article was updated to include information and quotes regarding Caritas from Karen O’Brien and Karen Stanley.

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