Katharine DeRosa, Staff Writer
Members of VCU’s student government are demanding that the university convert an unused building on campus into a homeless shelter after the City of Richmond announced it will not open a downtown cold-weather facility. Some who would have a hand in the process, however, say the plan may not be a catch-all solution for the city’s homeless population.
VCU’s Student Government Association released a statement Friday demanding VCU reopen the former club known as Mansion 534 to the homeless population this winter.
“We feel that as a Senate we must take action to help our community,” the statement read.
According to the SGA statement, the Mansion building at 534 N. Harrison St. was Virginia’s only Black and queer-owned nightclub before VCU bought the facility in 2018. The building is not being used by the university at this time.
VCU spokesperson Mike Porter said in an email that the former Mansion building is classified as an assembly facility by the state and would need to be renovated to legally allow a shelter to be there.
If the university were to try to make that change, an architect would have to evaluate the building and present the plans to the State Division of Engineering and Building in the Department of General Services. Porter said this process would take 60-90 days, and construction would have to be done on the building.
It would cost about $1 million to transform the building’s first floor into a cold-weather shelter, Porter said.
“There simply isn’t enough time to work through the required process,” Porter said in an email.
The demand comes on the heels of the City of Richmond’s decision to not open the Cold Weather Overflow Shelter at the Annie Giles Community Center in Shockoe Bottom. Instead, the city will expand other resources through the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care Network that includes multiple homeless service providers.
According to the strategic plan to end homelessness released by the City of Richmond, the shelter was largely ineffective because it only serves adults over the age of 18 and does not provide any support services, such as food or continued care.
The center on 1400 Oliver Hill Way is located next to the former site of Camp Cathy, a tent community that stood on VCU-owned land from August 2019 until it was torn down in March. Porter said in an email that VCU’s lease on the land expires in December 2055, and the university has no plans to build there.
Kelly King Horne, executive director of Homeward, said she is open to discussion with VCU about the Mansion building. She said she doesn’t know enough about the facility to have an informed opinion on establishing an emergency shelter.
“Having pop-up or uncoordinated services is actually less effective overall, and people don’t get the benefit of service providers or other resources that they might need to end their homelessness and meet other life goals,” King Horne said.
Homeward is a Richmond-based organization that coordinates the region’s response to homelessness. King Horne said the group has been working to respond to the closure of the cold weather shelter.
“The focus just on one facility to another sort of misses the point, because it doesn’t take into account all the other services that are happening every day and the complexity and commitments that go into those services,” King Horne said.
Homeward, other Richmond-area organizations and the city are working to establish emergency beds and locations for the winter season. King Horne said the decision to close the shelter is a “moot point” since Homeward coordinates a variety of services to the homeless population.
“No single agency or local government can tackle this crisis on their own,” King Horne said.
Homeward provides entry points to services, housing for people who need assistance, permanent supportive long-term housing, substance use recovery services, COVID-19 testing and socially distanced shelter at hotels. Homeward also coordinates 10 emergency shelters for families and individuals.
The strategic plan to end homelessness includes seven initiatives, one of which is to increase affordable permanent housing by 300 units.
The plan includes 2019 data, compiled by Homeward, that states the number of days that people spend homeless in Richmond has increased from 468.3 in 2015 to 947.4 in 2019. King Horne said personal case conferencing, where case managers from different agencies meet, is crucial to decreasing the number of days that people spend without permanent shelter.
On Friday, Mayor Levar Stoney held a virtual press conference to address the issue of homelessness in the city. He announced increased hours for the Homelessness Crisis Line, which can be reached at 804-972-0813. The line is now open 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends.
Those seeking resources without access to a phone can visit five locations around the city:
- RVA Light, 504 W. Broad St.
- REAL Life, 406 E. Main St.
- OAR of Richmond, 3111 W. Clay St.
- Main Branch of the Richmond Public Library, 101 E. Franklin St.
- Southside Plaza, 4100 Hull Street Rd.
“You can’t talk about getting more people into shelter if you don’t have a plan to help them fix it,” King Horne said. “For personal autonomy and dignity, housing is the answer.”
VCU social work professor Maurice Gattis said the shelter at Annie Giles should be opened since cold weather is coming into the city.
“I think that it’s a really important issue and people’s health and lives are at stake,” Gattis said.
SGA President Taylor Maloney did not immediately respond to requests for comment.