Protecting Virginia's Homeless from COVID-19

Apr 14, 2020

For thousands of Virginians without a place to live, staying at home isn’t an option.

Earlier this month, Governor Northam announced $2.5 million in emergency funding to help those experiencing homelessness.

There was no way to ensure six feet of distance between all 55 beds at the Salvation Army shelter that Paul Murphy manages in Richmond.    "Our men’s program is basically one large dorm area," he notes.  So the organization stopped taking new clients in an effort to prevent a wildfire spread of coronavirus. 

Credit CDC

Now Murphy’s dividing his time between the shelter downtown and a nearby Boys and Girls Club owned by the Salvation Army. The nonprofit repurposed the shuttered children’s center into a temporary living space for homeless people who have physical health conditions and those over 60.    "I’m working with a population that’s at high risk because of their homelessness  and I’m working with the high risk of those high risk. And I, too, am in that high risk," Murphy says.

Murphy will turn 65 later this month.  He's concerned about contracting the virus and infecting others, including his wife.

He’s keeping as safe a distance as possible, but he feels her absence. "I really haven’t had the opportunity to give her a hug. I can’t remember the last time I touched her."

For Murphy, time spent at the shelter is a risk he’s willing to take. For others, it’s a necessity.  More than 5,700 people experience homelessness in the Commonwealth, according to estimates from the Department of Housing and Community Development. Many have limited access to clean water, soap and toilets. 

Advocates say the closure of libraries and other public spaces have put vital resources even further out of reach.  

DHCD is getting requests from service providers across the state asking for everything from hand sanitizer and gloves to vouchers for motels that can provide refuge for some of the state’s most vulnerable residents.

Pam Kestner is the Deputy Director of Housing at DHCD. The department is responsible for administering millions in emergency grants the state is slated to receive from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.     "Our goal is that we stretch these dollars to go to meet immediate needs," Kestner says, "while at the same time recognizing that we don’t know how long this event will last."

Kestner says the federal grants will reimburse the $2.5 million that Governor Northam borrowed from state funds. The first injection will go to areas designated as COVID-19 hotspots and the rest will be distributed as new needs become apparent.

But is it enough?  "It is difficult to say," Kestner admits. 

Now more than ever, it’s imperative that communities coordinate their efforts to address glaring issues in the housing system, according to Brian Koziol, who leads the Virginia Housing Alliance. The organization advocates for policies to end homelessness and increase the stock of affordable housing.

He says everyone has to do their part.  "The business community has a role in it. The people that pay people a living wage," Koziol says. "Local governments have a role in it to make sure that we have the ability to shelter and house those people most in need."

Without that collaboration, Koziol says the situation in Virginia is bound to get worse and the number of people experiencing homelessness is likely to increase.

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