There weren't any blankets in Richmond.
It was mid-December of last year, and Richmond's chilling, frigid winter cold spell was finally hitting full stride. It was the time to hand out blankets to the members of the city's homeless population who couldn't get beds indoors.
But Richmond was out of blankets.
It was a nationwide problem, Greg Asay soon discovered. Off and on for two weeks, Asay, assistant project manager for Homeward, Richmond's Regional Response to Homelessness, worked the phones from his tiny office upstairs in the United Way Services building on Broad Street.
"We were definitely in a crisis situation," Asay recalls. Earlier in the year, Congress had cut a Department of Defense appropriation that previously had allowed DOD to donate surplus blankets to homeless providers nationwide. So last winter, there were no funds and no blankets.
Asay had made little headway in securing blankets by Christmas when he returned briefly to his parents' home in Cherry Hill, N.J. While at home, Asay read a news report that due to public outcry Congress had reinstated the DOD's blanket appropriation. He came back to Richmond, called the DOD's nearest distribution center in Philadelphia and got them to ship 3,000 blankets to Richmond. Once the blankets, packed six to a box, arrived at the United Way, Asay convinced the United Parcel Service to donate their trucks and manpower to distribute the blankets to where they were desperately needed: The Daily Planet, Freedom House and the city's Emergency Overflow Shelter. In all, Asay says the UPS distributed between 1,000 and 1,500 blankets to area providers. There are still stacks and stacks of boxes in the United Way's basement waiting for this year's winter freeze.
It's indicative of the way Homeward works: Attack the short-term crisis, keep your eye on the long-term goal.
That kind of work characterized Homeward's first year. Last spring, the group began coordinating homeless services in Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield counties and has had a busy year. By bringing a diverse but dedicated array of people to the same table, providers, government officials, case workers, community activists and the homeless have come together to provide an immediate impact in the lives of the region's homeless, and set the stage for finding workable solutions to a chronic problem.
A mayoral Homeless Task Force that met from 1995-1996 first identified the need locally for a regional coordinating body that could integrate the city's diverse homeless services, from transitional homes for single women with children to meals programs for adult men.
After securing city approval, funding and offices in the United Way building in the first months of 1998, Homeward established a 21-member board of directors. The board examined coordinating bodies like the UNITY Project in New Orleans, La., that had met with success. They then began to plan the kind of body they wanted to create here.
By May, the board had hired Reggie Gordon to direct the project.
Gordon says the first job was to get the players together. Not an easy task, considering the city's providers did not work together. They didn't meet regularly and were frequently unaware of exactly what services each provider offered. In addition, the service providers competed for the same city, state and federal funds.
Homeward's Asay estimates that at any given time there are 1,626 homeless people in the region. That doesn't count children or people staying with friends and family. Each one of those people has different needs, and a different story, and each agency provides a specific service. The Daily Planet and Freedom House can both house single men and women for brief periods of time, but not families. The Emergency Shelter can house single women with children, but couples often can't find shelter. There are very limited services for substance abusers and veterans, and there's no where to go for the sick short of MCV's emergency room. Each provider has a niche, but they often aren't aware of what their colleagues' niches are.
It's a tangled web of outreach, one with a lot of overlap and just as many gaps. And the faces of the homeless are constantly changing, so providers must be flexible in the services they offer.
So it was no small feat last spring when Gordon gathered together the executive directors of providers like The Daily Planet, The Emergency Shelter, Inc., Freedom House, CARITAS and St. Joseph's Villa, and later met with local government officials and other community activists.
"That first meeting was surreal," Gordon recalls of his initial gathering of executive directors. "Some of the providers didn't know each other."
Gordon is a native Richmonder who came back to his hometown after nearly ten years as in-house counsel to The American Red Cross in Washington D.C. under Elizabeth Dole. The 1978 Thomas Jefferson High School graduate, who went on to Duke University and Howard Law School, wanted to return to a smaller, more manageable city. That brought him back to his hometown.
The most striking feature of his mostly nondescript office high in the United Way building is a colorful, finger-painted timeline of the efforts to combat homelessness in Richmond over the last two decades. From a recognition of the problem in the late 1970s to the creation of Homeward in the late 1990s, the lack of progress in going from identifying to solving problems is portrayed in broad, energetic colors and phrases that would have made de Kooning proud.
Gordon speaks of the "turf wars" that various providers engaged in before Homeward set up its table and invited everyone to sit around it. "Bad feelings preceded us," Gordon says matter-of-factly. He adds that his group was met at its inception with varying degrees of mistrust, especially during ranking sessions for U.S. Housing and Urban Development money that occurred last summer and again this spring.
"The bad vibes about Richmond and Henrico and Chesterfield, and people pretending to want to work together and not being honest about it, those days have to be behind us, because we're talking about people's lives," Gordon says.
A year later that mistrust is diminishing.
The Rev. Mike McClary, executive director of the Good Samaritan Inn, which houses homeless former substance abusers and gets them back to work and on their feet, stopped meeting with other service providers in 1987. He says he was turned off by the provider politicking and sniping. He says that because he was a clergy person and his shelter had a religious component, it was derisively referred to as "praying and staying." This spring, after being contacted several times by Homeward, McClary agreed to participate and hosted an executive director's meeting at his shelter.
"There was more of an openness to say, 'Let's work together to see what we can do," McClary recalls.
"We wanted people to like us," Gordon says simply of his initial strategy. "We felt like that would be important for us the first year." While Gordon feels like he's making progress in getting the players to come together, he knows he isn't all the way there, and acknowledges that his group does have his critics. He mentions Henry McLaughlin, the director of Central Virginia Legal Aid, as one of those. Gordon says that McLaughlin objected to Homeward's homeless summit being held last March at the University of Richmond, a location inaccessible to most of the downtown homeless population. McLaughlin declined comment on Homeward.
But those who have bought into Homeward's mission aren't shy about their support and approval for Gordon and Homeward. On board is Gray Wyatt, who owns Perley's Restaurant on Grace Street downtown, and who was involved in the early 1995-1996 task force that first identified the need for a coordinating body. He's now a Homeward board member.
Skip Stanley, residential services manager for the Chesterfield County Community Services Board, also serves on Homeward's board. He saw the kind of immediate, if short-term, impact regional cooperation can have when he learned that a Chesterfield church is one of CARITAS' largest supporters. "We're all at the table now," he explains. "I think a lot of people are making the long-term commitment, and [homelessness] is not going to disappear without everybody making the long-term commitment."
Board member George T. Drumwright Jr., Henrico's deputy county manager for community services, says, "It's beginning to prove itself as a valuable resource."
HUD's allotments prove that in dollars and cents. Last year's HUD application process involved more than 100 people from Greater Richmond, and netted nearly $2.5 million in federal money, an increase of $600,000 from 1997. This year Homeward involved more than 300 people in the process, and is asking for another $2.5 million. It is significant, and a point of pride with Gordon, Wyatt and the other board members that two of the major projects that appear on this year's HUD application are in the counties Hilliard House, a transitional housing shelter for women in Henrico County, and The Daughters of Zelophehad, a transitional shelter in Chesterfield.Continue to Part 2