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COVID-19 Creates New Challenges for Homeless Looking to Escape the Cold

Cat Modlin-Jackson

As the nights get colder, many Virginians experiencing homelessness will try to navigate shelter systems upended by COVID-19.

People across the state are preparing for an unprecedented winter.

Credit Cat Modlin-Jackson
James Weathers and friend Ragan McManus

On a sunny morning, James Weathers is hanging out at a community center in Harrisonburg before he heads to work. Like many of his friends here, he’s spent months struggling to find a place to live.  "You just get discouraged," Weathers admits, "out here like this when you have money and they tell you, ‘affordable housing,’ and they come with you (at) $850. That’s not affordable."

After almost a year of experiencing homelessness, Weathers is about to move into a subsidized apartment he found by navigating the city’s social support network.  But on this night, as the sun and temperature drop, he’s in a line of people outside a church waiting to board a city bus headed for the hills of Rockingham County. 

That’s where Open Doors has repurposed a retreat center into a shelter for the first part of the season.

Joel Ballew is the nonprofit’s executive director.  "When we were looking for a place to operate this year, we had to shift what we’ve always done."

Credit Cat Modlin-Jackson
Open Doors set up one of its temporary shelters in a former retreat center.

Before the pandemic, organizations like Open Doors relied on local faith centers to offer a warm place to sleep on a rotating basis.  "Many of those places have a lot tighter spaces than social distancing guidelines allow and so we’ve needed to look for bigger spaces," Ballew says.

Across the state, Matthew Stearn faced a similar challenge. He leads Hampton Roads Ecumenical Lodgings and Provisions, or H.E.L.P. for short.  First, the H.E.L.P. staff had to find a church large enough to give over 100 people enough space to maintain a healthy distance. "The other navigation that we had to work through is the planning and zoning for the City of Hampton because a church is not really zoned to be a residential facility." According to Stearn, officials agreed to not enforce the zoning restrictions so H.E.L.P. could use the church through spring.

Meanwhile, in Richmond, the city’s cold weather shelter will not open this year.  Instead, local nonprofits have set up a non-congregant approach that includes expanding the motel voucher system they’ve used throughout the pandemic.  "It’s a replacement of the hypothermia component but it’s also an evolution of the cold weather shelter," says Kelly King Horne.  King Horne is executive director at Homeward, which leads the regional homeless service network. She says the new system takes into account social distancing protocol, while also providing services that can help people find permanent housing. 

But some say closing the shelter could leave people in the cold.  Alex Wagaman is an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who researches youth homelessness.   "I’m not arguing the cold-weather shelter was an ideal solution," Wagaman says, "but it was always accessible."

Wagaman says youth, LGBTQ folks and people not classified as high-risk for COVID may struggle to get a voucher.

There are a lot of holes in homeless safety nets and more work needed to change that, says Justice Valentine with Advocates for Richmond Youth, an organization established by people who’ve experienced housing instability.  But there are some immediate changes communities can make, says Valentine.  "One: Opening the cold weather shelter. Two: Making sure that there are non-tokenizing roles for people who have lived experience."

The coming months are cloaked in uncertainty, but with the end of Daylight Saving Time, nightfall will come sooner and so will its chill.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

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