RICHMOND, Va. - A Chesterfield mom recovering from addiction said she spent months amid the pandemic without custody of her children having no success finding a place to rent.
Experts said a shortage of affordable housing, exacerbated by the pandemic, continued to plague the Richmond-metro region, causing the homeless to stay in shelter beds longer.
"Every single night not having them. It's like torture, it's gut-wrenching. Like you physically crave your children when you don't have them," said Christie Cassidy.
Cassidy said she began her road to recovery 15 months ago after a years-long battle with addiction.
"Started with pain medication," Cassidy said. "From there, it snowballed into heroin."
In April 2020, Cassidy said she was told her children could no longer stay with her. That was the final straw for Cassidy and one week later, she checked into rehab. She got out of the facility in June.
However, even 15 months sober, Cassidy said she still didn’t have her children back.
"For the last six months, the only thing that's been holding me back having them back full time was a home," Cassidy said.
Finding a home amid the pandemic proved to be extremely difficult. Cassidy said she reached out to about 20 to 30 different places but was only able to put in an application at two.
"When you make phone calls, they don't ask you your name, your income or anything. They just say, 'We have a waiting list.' And, you know, 'We're not even taking applications at this time,'" Cassidy said. "I felt so stuck. I felt like no matter how hard I tried, like, I just wasn't getting any leeway."
Cassidy wasn't alone in her experience.
A Homeward January 2021 Point in Time Count showed that the number of people experiencing homelessness in the Richmond region increased by 53 percent and emergency shelter bed nights across the Richmond region had nearly doubled.
Faith Kallman, director of development for Homeward, said Homeward expected to receive data for their July Point in Time Count in the coming weeks but said stays in shelter beds continued to be about the same.
"We have not seen the shelter time frame decrease significantly since March," Kallman said.
Kallman added that Richmond had some of the lowest vacancy rates of rental properties in the country, made worse by the pandemic.
"Richmond has had a very tight rental market, but the tight market before was like 4 and 5 percent vacancy rates. And now we're at a .5 percent vacancy, right? Like that is literally for every one unit that comes available, there are, you know, multiple applications for people to apply," Kallman said. "It is literally a domino effect. It's affordability, it's able to turn it around. I mean, one domino standstill and everything is held up."
Beth Vann-Turnbull, executive director for Housing Families First, the largest family shelter in Greater Richmond, said that had been the trend in their shelter as well.
"I think one thing that's been highlighted during the pandemic is that there is not enough housing for everybody at one time," Vann-Turnbull said.
However, in the last month, their organization had seen more success thanks to connections made with landlords.
"Across our programs, we were able to lease 12 families, which is a lot for us in one month," said Vann-Turnbull.
But she said that before the pandemic, the shelter was leasing many more.
"We could easily see something like 20 to 25 in a month, and with our new program added, we were aiming for like 30 families a month. But that just hasn't been possible in the current rental environment," Vann-Turnbull said.
Vann-Turnbull said a program established just over a year ago called Bringing Families Home partnered with public school systems to identify students and their families who were highly mobile or unstably housed and help them get into stable housing.
Cassidy said it was through that program that Housing Families First helped her find her Chesterfield apartment in July.
"They help you get on your feet so that your family can be together, and they can be under one roof," Cassidy said.
She said that means she’ll be reunited with her children in the coming weeks.
"Just being back with them every single day, you know, not having to FaceTime them, or, you know, any of that. I can't wait," Cassidy said.