NOTE: This piece was originally released for publication in February 2017. You can read it here as well.
RICHMOND, Va. — Ever since Monroe Park shut down for renovations in November, the conversation around homelessness in Richmond has grown more urgent, and some say more productive.
Monroe Park, a pentagonal piece of land that sits in the middle of Virginia Commonwealth University’s main campus, has for many years been a spot where the homeless congregated and where groups who help to feed and clothe the needy gathered to provide assistance.
Churches, community groups and other organizations prepared for the closing of the park years in advance, but a perfect alternative never seemed to appear. Many of the homeless population began to congregate in Abner Clay Park half a mile away. But this park lacks the facilities Monroe had, and according to those who used to frequent Monroe, the homeless are no longer welcome in Abner Clay, either.
“Abner Clay lasted probably a month and then they shut that down to us too. Right now, Shepherd’s Way Relief Center are trying to help out and they’re doing a great job,” said Robert Thomas, as he panhandled along Belvidere Street. Thomas has been homeless on and off for eight years. “They’ve let the churches come there on the weekends to feed. They had originally started feeding at Abner Clay, then the city of Richmond messed that up and made them leave there too.”
The logistical issues that sprung out of the park closing sparked plenty of conversation among the groups in Richmond who tackle homelessness.
“We’ve been talking about planning for the closure of Monroe Park for six years or so. And the conversations have really now become more useful — saying, ‘Okay, what’s the best way to really meet these needs?’” said Kelly King Horne, the director of Homeward, a data-focused coordinating organization for homeless services. “How do we make sure these really basic services such as food, or clothing giveaways, are connected to other services that say, help people find stable housing or treatment? And we have seen an increase in people getting connected to permanent housing resources since the park closed.”
Despite the greater level of engagement between groups who serve both the homeless and the impoverished in the city, the conversation seems to often come back to Richmond not having a solid infrastructure for dealing with the homeless.
“The question is more a systemic problem of how do we address the causes of poverty,” said Reverend Kimberly Reinholz, who works at Grace & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, which feeds and provides some other services. “What our church has done is has done is partner with other community organizations and other faith-based organizations to start a program called Circles RVA, which is in the infancy stages.”
Reinholz says Circles RVA will aim to keep people from falling into poverty in the first place, since poverty leads to the “chronic condition” of homelessness. They are currently accepting volunteer sign-ups.
“How many people were really concerned about the homeless until they came across the sidewalk and were on the steps of the Altria theater?”
Richmond officials are aware the benefit of connecting faith-based and other organizations with each other so that they can better serve the underserved. When asked about the problem, one city official mentioned a December forum hosted by Homeward and St. Paul’s Church, which had led to some of these connections.
“At the forum, one gentleman stood up and asked for volunteers, so people made connections through that,” said King Horne. “And someone else was saying, what if we opened a community meals program, what would that look like? But these things are still in the planning stages. They take funding, so that’s hard.”
The city hosted a forum last February which discussed the imminent closure of the park and tried to link the homeless up with services that could assist them when the park was no longer an option.
“When the park closed, people were upset, but it was not without a lot of preliminary conversation. If someone was surprised the park was closing, then they were new to town,” said Alice McGuire Massie, President of Monroe Park Conservancy, a group that is working with the city and VCU to renovate the park.
Massie says the group put up banners asking park-goers in need to call 211, which provides Virginians with information about social services.
“We wanted the people who were providing food to partner up with organizations that already existed, like the downtown church community, to link up with the churches and use their kitchens to be able to continue to feed,” she said.
Since the closing of the park, people who are homeless have gravitated toward Abner Clay, but others have opted to spend their days around VCU campus, close by to where the boarded-up and abandoned park is. Rev. Reinholz says that while the park is closed, those who want to help should make an effort to reach out to the people in need who they see every day.
“How many people were really concerned about the homeless until they came across the sidewalk and were on the steps of the Altria theater?” Reinholz said. “Or on our church’s porch, or in the midst of the VCU campus? You know, you see the same folks every day because this is where they live. They’re your neighbors. If you really want to know how you can help, you can say hello. See our neighbors as human beings, and not something to be stepped over or something to be walked away from.”
Reinholz emphasized that most people who are homeless are just trying to get from point A to point B.
“There are things like the street sheet put out by Homeward that provides a list of meals,” she said. “If someone says they’re hungry, you can say, ‘Are you aware there’s a meal at noon today at this church?’”
Thomas agreed that the best thing you can do to help a homeless person is to have a conversation with them and try to point them in the right direction.
“How people around here can help us is mainly to just direct us to food, food banks or shelter,” he said.
“See our neighbors as human beings, and not something to be stepped over or something to be walked away from.”
When he lived in Gainesville, Florida, Thomas says he was helped a great deal by a program called Grace Marketplace, where many key services are housed in one campus-style location.
“If I could say anything to Mayor Stoney, I would ask him to get in touch with Grace Marketplace, and get some advice on how to do something like they have down there. Reach out to them. Actually, I’m trying to figure out a way to get back down there right now.”