Petersburg is drafting a plan to help the homeless. Will it have city and regional buy in?

·4 min read
The old Salvation Army building at 835 Commerce Street has five groups bidding for it. It last operated as a men's homeless shelter before closing in 2017.
The old Salvation Army building at 835 Commerce Street has five groups bidding for it. It last operated as a men's homeless shelter before closing in 2017.

PETERSBURG—As evictions ramp up in the Tri-Cities and winter is only months away, advocates voice concern over the increased number of people that may be out on the streets in a region that offers few resources for those who are homeless.

Community members gathered at the Petersburg Public Library for the second part of the Housing Summit, this time to brainstorm solutions that address the lack of shelter in the region.

The Tri-Cities do not have a dedicated homeless shelter. In the winter time, PUSH Faith House opens up a church in Dendron, a 45 minute drive southeast from Petersburg, to give the homeless in this region a warm place to sleep at night. They also operate a 24/7 shelter in Jarratt, 30 miles south, but can only house eight people at one time.

At the summit, hosts Councilwoman Treska Wilson-Smith and social worker Genevieve Lohr proposed some possible short and long-term solutions, using Gloucester County as a potential model for the short-term solution.

The Gloucester United Emergency Shelter Team's coalition of churches operates a winter shelter from December to March. A different church opens up their facility every week and they rotate housing the homeless. They also operate a day shelter three days a week during the mornings and afternoons where the unhoused can take a shower, have a meal, do their laundry, use the computers and the internet and have people to assist them with housing resources.

"This is very essential," said Lohr. "This is something we desperately need in this region, and it would need to be located in multiple places. Hopewell needs their own place. Petersburg needs their own place...because people need to be able to get to a day shelter so that they can do these things. They need to be able to shower. They need to be able to do laundry, to get to the internet."

Many homeless people do not own cell phones or have access to computers to be able to look for jobs. As a result, it makes it difficult for social workers and homeless advocates to follow up with them and to keep helping them.

"[The day shelter] would make a difference," said Lohr.

In an interview with the PI, Councilwoman Smith said the idea would be to start with a day and winter shelter, and then to expand to a shelter that's open every day throughout the year.

The immediate goal, in a best case scenario, would be to have a winter emergency shelter open this winter for the region.

"If our overall goal is to eradicate homelessness, we can do it and only do it when we decide to work together," said Smith.

However, challenges remain in setting up a winter shelter in Petersburg. In order to operate a shelter, churches and organizations must obtain a special use permit, and that fee usually costs $1,500 or more. In addition, any approval of permits would have to go through the city council first. At least one council member has been opposed to opening a shelter in Petersburg.

More: For nearly two years, the city thwarted efforts to open a shelter

It may be possible for Petersburg to obtain one special use permit for all churches to share in the same way that Gloucester is set up, says Lohr, but that would also have to be approved by the council. That permit fee, along with not having enough man power, was what prevented First Baptist church on Washington St. from using their church as a cold shelter when the Salvation Army shelter shuttered in 2017.

The long-term goal involves turning the buildings at the former Southside Virginia Training Center near the Central State hospital into temporary homes for the unhoused for the region. This plan comes from Smith's Humanities Bill, and is one of two parts of the bill; the second part involves helping those facing evictions navigate the court system by putting a case worker in the courts, similar to what Richmond now has.

Richmond currently is running a pilot program in which an office has been set up in the General District Court for a someone to assist those facing evictions, or "unlawful detainers." This court navigator helps people find out what their resources and options are, as well as sets them up to get legal representation on the spot if there is an attorney available.

“Within this, we have seen success, we have seen that this works,” said Michelle Jones of HOME VA.

Smith proposed the Humanities Bill shortly after she was elected in 2010, but was unsuccessful in getting it passed due to a lack of support from other city councilors at that time. Now, Delegate Kim Taylor has taken up Smith's bill and will draft a bill similar to hers in hopes of getting passed during the General Assembly during the next session, as well as work on getting buy-in from other surrounding counties like Dinwiddie and Prince George.

More: Petersburg wants to use vacant housing at an abandoned mental health facility for the homeless

Senator Joe Morrissey also stated that one of his and Taylor's goals for the next session would be to try to extend the eviction moratorium.

A working group for homelessness, the Emergency Housing Planning Committee, was created to pursue these solutions further and will be meeting every two weeks. Those interested in joining are encouraged get in touch with Lohr at glohr@petersburg-va.org.

Joyce Chu, an award-winning investigative journalist, is the Social Justice Watchdog Reporter for The Progress Index. Contact her with comments, concerns, or story-tips at  Jchu1@gannett.com or on Twitter @joyce_speaks.

This article originally appeared on The Progress-Index: Petersburg forms a plan to help the homeless, now needs city buy-in