RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The number of people in the Richmond region staying in unsheltered conditions such as cars and tents has reached its highest level in 15 years, a new study found.

Homeward conducted the region’s federally-mandated Point in Time (PIT) count — a twice-a-year snapshot of the people experiencing homelessness that typically takes place in January and July — on the night of Jan. 25 and the morning of Jan. 26.

The latest count recorded 690 people in the region experiencing homelessness, which is defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as those staying in area shelters, hotels paid for by the government or a nonprofit, cars, tents, streets or anywhere else not meant for human habitation.

This represents a slight overall decline from last year, but the 2023 count recorded 188 people staying outdoors, in cars, tents, streets or other places not meant for human habitation, a significant increase from the 85 people staying in unsheltered conditions last January.

“It’s a signal that we’re not utilizing proven programs that work enough,” Kelly King Horne, Homeward’s executive director, said Thursday of the spike.

A surprising aspect of the most recent count, according to Homeward, is that the 15-year record was set during the winter instead of the summer when the weather “is less of a deterrent to sleeping outside.”

Homeward, the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care’s planning and coordinating body, has organized PIT counts for the Greater Richmond region — Richmond City, Chesterfield, Colonial Heights, Henrico, Hanover, New Kent, Goochland, Powhatan and Charles City — since 1999.

PIT counts are required by HUD with the aim of using the data to inform decisions on funding, services, programs and planning.

King Horne pointed to low rental vacancy rates, a lack of deeply affordable housing in the region and rent hikes for the area’s housing instability. These issues might be more prevalent in the city of Richmond, but King Horne said people staying outside has increased “throughout the region.”

“It’s not surprising, but the fact that it’s so persistent is,” she said of the numbers, noting that one person in a county in the region was staying in their car because they couldn’t afford rent despite having a job.

According to Homeward, 63.7% of those in the 2023 count reported their race as Black, 27.9% said white and 8.4% said two or more races or another race. Nearly 28% said they were evicted in the last three years and 74.1% said they were unemployed.

Families made up 37.2% of those experiencing homelessness — 85 people — in the region in the January 2023 count. While these numbers dropped from January 2022 to July 2022, the PIT counts show families experiencing homelessness continue to be “substantially higher than our region’s historical average.”

One striking and “troubling” revelation of the counts, King Horne told 8News, has been the increase in older adults experiencing homelessness in the region. Nearly 45% of those in the count were 55 years or older, Homeward said.

“Some people can’t just get a job or find somewhere better to stay,” she said. “There’s an ongoing need that’s only getting more dire.”

According to a PIT survey, 26.4% of people in the region experiencing homelessness attributed their job or income loss, at least in part, to COVID-19. And 18.2% ascribed the pandemic, at least in part, to their housing loss.

The report comes as Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney proposed a $3 billion budget with funding to improve homeless services, including $1.75 million to support a year-round emergency shelter.  

Last year, efforts to open cold weather shelters in Richmond faced several setbacks, including delays and funding issues. City Councilmember Stephanie Lynch called out the city, saying it was “failing” people without a place to stay during the winter.