Homelessness funding at unprecedented levels in Virginia during pandemic


RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- As many struggle with a lack of resources during the pandemic, the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development says funding for the state’s homelessness response is at an all-time high. One local provider says it’s only comparable to the rebound from the Great Recession.

Virginia’s Deputy Housing Director Pamela Kestner said protecting the homeless became a matter of public health during the state’s ‘stay at home’ order. She said more homeless people are accepting help during the pandemic and local partners have more dollars at their disposal.

For the first time, some communities aren’t seeing anyone on the street, according to Kestner.

Homeward Executive Director Kelly King Horne said, in the Greater Richmond Region, they still don’t have enough resources to serve everyone. She estimates 50 to 70 people remain on the street.

Horne said, over the last two months, they’ve helped an additional 300 people, doubling the homeless population they usually serve.

Statewide, Gov. Ralph Northam’s Administration fronted $2.5 million to help an estimated 1,500 people. DHCD says that money was distributed to each community network based on the most recent Point-in-Time Count of those who were unsheltered. They also took into account those who rely on shelters that require them to leave during the day. Localities were then able to request additional funds based on the need.

“Instead of a state agency telling communities ‘here is the money this is how you need to use it,’ we let the communities determine what their needs were,” Kestner said. “As long as it was related to COVID-19, that was fine with us.”

Kestner said DHCD had originally envisioned putting all 1,500 people up in hotels but, by the time the funds got to the ground level, many communities had already come up with creative solutions.

The agency said James Madison University converted dorm rooms for the homeless in Harrisonburg. Prince William County used the funding for staff and supplies after opening up a government building with more space for quarantining symptomatic individuals.

Kestner said the federal government will reimburse the state for their initial investment and will continue to support this funding stream with more than $10 million from the CARES Act.

“We anticipate getting more,” Kestner said. “We’re not sure how much more.”

In the meantime, Kestner said they’re working with communities to figure out how to best use these dollars before they inevitably run out.

“Obviously hotel and motel rooms, that’s probably the most expensive option,” Kestner said. “So the more quickly we can get people housed, the longer we can stretch these dollars.”

Horne estimates each night in a hotel costs about $75 per person. She said Homeward has been able to divert about 10 percent of people to permanent supportive housing so far.

“Until everyone in our community has that, we’re not done,” Horne said. “The biggest need is stable housing.”

As coronavirus strains the state budget, still frozen as leaders try to get a handle on revenue projections, there’s some concern that this boost in funding could be followed by cuts.

“There’s always a fear of that,” Kestner said. “The last thing we want to see happen is these people going back into hotels and motels if there’s a second wave of the virus.”

Kestner said budget cuts could make it difficult to expand the state’s permanent supportive housing infrastructure at a time where the demand will likely be higher from the pandemic.

“I do anticipate an uptick as the eviction moratoriums come offline and the economic crisis continues,” Horne said.

Find your community’s homeless crisis line here.

Learn more about protections for renters and homeowners here.

See how much your community got for its homelessness response during the pandemic:

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