Snapshots from the Shelter -

Friends & Neighbors

Snapshots from the Shelter

Yesterday as I was leaving the shelter, the last thing I saw was a family – both parents and their children – patiently waiting in the lobby while our gloved Overnight House Manager took one temperature, then disinfected the thermometer, then took another temperature, disinfected again, and repeated. These are new and strange times for the families living in our programs and the Housing Families First staff.

Since there is virtually nowhere in the world untouched by concern about the coronavirus, none of us are immune to the disruption and anxiety it brings. What’s it like to live and work in a family shelter right now? What is Housing Families First doing to keep people safe and sane, as well as weather the pandemic so that we can continue to operate once it subsides?

For context, 31 children and adults in 10 families are living in our Hilliard House shelter. Another 107 people in 30 households are participating in our rapid re-housing program, most of whom are newly housed and working toward longer-term housing stability.

Our staff continues to work with these 138 program participants throughout this pandemic, albeit in different ways than we ever imagined. Geneen, our Shelter Case Manager, put it best: “During these trying times we will continue to circle around our families in shelter and in the communities with an abundance of resources and proactive measures that will allow them to safely move through their crisis.”

I want to share an overview of what we are doing in our programs to keep everyone safe. But first, I want to share a little about what some of our team are seeing and feeling right now:

Cindy, Program Director: “As a staff member and a parent with young children, I have been encouraged by the resiliency of our families experiencing homelessness as they continue to practice social distancing within the shelter as best as possible, while also showing solidarity alongside us, “gloving up”, as we say, to disinfect surfaces, take their family temperatures daily, and navigate the community closures. We are stronger together, even while we are physically apart.”

Kristin, Rapid Re-Housing Case Manager: “The COVID-19 virus has the Rapid Rehousing team working from home, and has severely limited our physical contact with clients. This distance has served to remind me of the value of human connection- just BEING THERE. In this age of automation, self-checkout, and digital interaction, I think we forget the value of sitting in the same room as another person, and how therapeutic it is to just be with other human beings, especially in times of uncertainty or great need.

Terri, Director of Operations & Volunteer Engagement: Balancing the needs of our shelter community with the needs of my own family has been heavy. Teaching myself how to prepare our shelter for a crisis no one in our time has experienced is a big task. Watching our staff and families rise and really come together to support each other, balance the stress and walk together in this is humbling.”

If you would like to help our families by supporting Housing Families First, please consider emailing an Amazon gift card to [email protected] or making a donation online to support continued staffing and operations. Just as importantly, the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care providers, the network of homeless service agencies in this region, are all working together with the City and counties to create sound guidelines and secure additional shelter, housing, and medical resources to deal with this crisis to the very best of our ability. Other agencies and government entities are working together to provide short-term hotel stays to get vulnerable people off the streets, and they are looking for volunteers to provide and deliver meals to hotels. Sign up at if you would like to help.

As promised, here is a brief overview of the safety and sustainability measures we are taking at Housing Families First:

1) Cleaning: Strict cleaning protocols have been implemented throughout the shelter and offices, and shelter participants are asked to pitch in, as possible. Furniture, toys, books, and other non-essential items have been removed from common areas to avoid possible contamination and promote easier cleaning.

2)  Social Distancing/Isolation: Each family at Hilliard House has their own bedroom and bath, a unique feature of our shelter. To encourage families to stay in their rooms as much as possible, families have been offered new, unused items that we have on hand such as books and games.

3) Meals: We stocked up on at least a two-week supply of breakfast and lunch foods and continue to serve hot meals for dinner. Tables for meals have been spaced at least six feet apart, and families may also eat dinner in their bedroom to avoid common areas altogether. A generous patron of Alewife (voted the South’s Best New Restaurant 2020 by Southern Living) donated a gift card to provide meals for our shelter, and the Alewife team is safely preparing the food that our staff will receive. This will greatly help us extend our supply of on-hand foods.

4) Staffing and Supportive Services: While we must have staff onsite day and night to keep the shelter operational, we are reducing the number of shelter and admin staff onsite to no more than three at a time. Our rapid re-housing team and our staff members that work with the regional Homeless Crisis Line are working from home and helping client families connect to community resources and stabilize in housing through calls, texts, and email.

5)  Volunteers and In-Kind Donations: As long as Richmond and/or Henrico County Public Schools are closed, we will not have anyone who is not on staff or a current resident of the shelter on our campus, except for emergencies. While we appreciate everyone’s generous spirit, we also cannot accept any donations of items onsite at this time. We have asked, although it has not always been heeded, that piles of unsolicited donations not be left in our breezeway, leaving the staff to dispose of them. (Friends don’t let friends dump and drive.)

6) Finances: The Executive and Finance Committees, along with staff leadership, have discussed agency finances and are implementing measures to continue full operations while conserving as many resources as possible, given that grant reimbursements may be slower and gifts may decrease during this time when families will likely need more emotional and financial support. In short, we want to be the best possible stewards of every dollar and resource that we have.

If you have questions or suggestions, please email me at [email protected]. Thank you for your concern and support during these challenging times for all of us. Stay safe and be well! –Beth

Beth Vann-Turnbull is Executive Director of Housing Families First.