Hungry and on the verge of homelessness, families living in motels seek help

Sandra Witherspoon heads into South Richmond one afternoon in early October with a trunk full of food and her phone buzzing with messages from families in need.

Witherspoon is the founder of RVA Humble Beginnings, a faith-based charity that serves “the homeless and the desperate,” she said. Every week, she provides anyone who asks for food, clothes, shoes, diapers or hygiene products. She collects it all through donations, stores it in her garage, and then delivers it one brown bag at a time.

“If we weren’t providing those services, I don’t think people’s needs would be met,” Witherspoon said.

Witherspoon is en route to part of the Midlothian Turnpike near the Chesterfield county line. Dozens of families who cannot find or afford a home have turned to budget motels on the stretch of road as housing of last resort.

Sandra Witherspoon is the founder of RVA Humble Beginnings, a faith-based organization that provides essentials to Richmond residents who live in hotels. (Photo: Duy Linh Tu/For VPM News)

Rents have risen more than 20% in the Richmond area since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data made available by CoStar, a real estate analytics firm. After three successive years of rent increases, families earning less than the Richmond MSA median income of $101,000 are struggling to find affordable housing in an area plagued by an affordable housing shortage. People facing other barriers to renting, such as previous eviction or bad credit, are at an even greater disadvantage when looking for housing.

At the same time, the rising cost of living has increased the pressure on the families served by Witherspoon. Inflation has pushed up the cost of goods by about 10% compared to the same period last year. Food prices rose even more sharply, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For families living in motels, paying more for food and other necessities means they have less money to spend on keeping their room for another night or saving for the cost of moving into an apartment. as a security deposit.

“We’re getting phone calls from people in the community who need help, and they’re at their wit’s end,” said Eric Leabough, director of the Henrico County Community Revitalization Department. “It’s days before we become homeless, and we have to scramble and direct them to resources.”

Since 2018, Leabough said his department has received $10 million in federal funding for programs to help residents of Henrico with housing, food and other basic needs.

“And I’ll be blunt, we can’t always help,” he added.

Organizations like Witherspoon’s need to fill in the gaps. At the start of the year, she regularly helped around five people on her weekly drop-off route. Since then, the number of people who rely on his care packages has grown to around 30.

The hike coincided with the expiration of several pandemic-era programs, such as Supplemental Food Access Benefits and Emergency Housing Assistance – guarantees that were crucial for families living in the poverty during the pandemic.

“[Families] have to rely a lot more on nonprofits or the school system to get any kind of food to put on the table,” said Kristin Riddick, community housing programs manager for nonprofit Housing Families First. who works directly with families with school-aged children living in hotels in Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield.

“As the prices of food and gasoline have risen, there has been less to rent or rent. [a] hotel stay,” Riddick said. “So often families have to make tough choices between paying for gas to get to work, or putting food on the table, or saving for a deposit, or paying their rent. This puts families in a very difficult situation, financially.”

Matt Sprouse and Mische Blakely have dealt with that this year.

The family’s previous rental was infested with bedbugs, and the landlord told Sprouse he couldn’t stay there with kids. Finding a new short-term apartment proved difficult. Even with $3,000 for a deposit, the couple couldn’t qualify for a new apartment due to credit issues.

With no other option, they moved with their three children – aged 12, 10 and 2 – to the Host Inn on Midlothian Turnpike in the spring. The short-term stay has since extended to more than six months. Keeping the room costs them $65 a day or $400 a week, more on a monthly basis than the average rent in the area.

Two people in winter clothes stand next to each other
Matt Sprouse and Mische Blakely have been living in a Midlothian Turnpike hotel for over six months. They’ve saved thousands of dollars but can’t get an apartment due to credit issues, and now live in the cramped hotel room with their three young children. (Photo: Duy Linh Tu/For VPM News)

Paying the sum each week emptied their savings. In early October, Sprouse was taking online surveys overnight to supplement his income, and Blakely was taking shifts at a Goodwill to earn extra money while waiting for his first check from a new call center job.

Feeding five people with what was left after paying for the room was impossible, the couple said. And they couldn’t have done either much longer if they hadn’t met Witherspoon this fall, Blakely said.

“If it wasn’t for [Witherspoon] and all the support she gave us with food, there were times when we probably wouldn’t have eaten, and there were times when we didn’t eat for a few days,” said Blakely. “She is our saviour. Without it, we probably wouldn’t live here because we’d be spending astronomical amounts on food to feed the five of us.

Like others on the road to Witherspoon, the family coordinates with her weekly for meals they can cook in their room and anything else they might need: meat, canned and dried goods, and snacks for their children. Witherspoon helped them get pots and pans so they could cook and save money by not eating out.

“At the middle of the month, they need help,” Witherspoon said. “They need food. They need help. I truly believe that if we weren’t there to help, they wouldn’t understand.

This story was produced with the support of the Journalism Association Economic Hardship Report Draft