Originally published in the Winter 2020 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 61, printed February 17. Reproduced here in for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Winter 2020 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.
By Phil Wilayto
It started with a few tents, a place for people without homes to get in out of Richmond’s winter weather. At least it was dry, and with some blankets and enough clothing, it was bearable. And as the number of tents and homeless people grew, it was safer than trying to find a place to sleep alone outside.
At its height, what is called Cathy’s Camp had about 125 tents housing around 130 people. It’s named after Cathy Davis, a volunteer with the nonprofit group Blessing Warriors RVA, which has been supplying tents, food and other support.
Ms. Davis played a central role in organizing the camp. Some years ago she had had a stroke, and on Dec. 28 she died of congestive heart failure. Her spirit lives on in the camp.
The ironic thing is that what has grown into a sizable tent city is set up right behind the city’s cold weather shelter, the building once known as the Conrad Center and now called the Annie Giles Community Resource Center. It’s on Oliver Hill Way in Shockoe Valley, right across the street from the city jail.
According to rules laid down by Richmond City Council, the city shelter can only be opened when the weather drops below 40 degrees. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or if the area, which is in a flood zone, is flooding. If it’s 40 degrees or warmer, the shelter stays closed.
The property the tents are pitched on, an open grassy area, belongs to Virginia Commonwealth University, a state institution, which has been letting the people stay there. But in early January, Rhonda Sneed, director of Blessing Warriors, received a letter from a city official telling her she needed to shut down the camp.
“Where are the people supposed to go?” she asked.
The city’s news media began covering the situation, and public outrage grew. The camp is in the city’s 6th District, and on Feb. 5 the council’s representative, Ellen Robertson, called a public meeting at the Giles Center. She said she wanted to present the city’s plan to deal with homelessness to people directly affected by the problem.
More than 200 people showed up, most of them not homeless themselves. They were members of the public outraged by the news that the city wanted the camp closed. They wanted assurances that the camp would be left alone until its residents could find permanent housing. The mood was serious, and insistent.
Over the past year homelessness in Richmond has risen 10 percent. It’s been widely reported that the city has the second highest eviction rate in the entire country.
Meanwhile, Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority is planning to demolish all 4,000 public housing apartments and replace them with ”mixed-income” housing, with no guarantee that the present residents will be able to move into the new units.
At the end of the one-hour meeting, Councilwoman Robertson was escorted out by security.
For now, the city says it has no plans to shut down the camp and is trying to work with the residents to help find them housing and other services.
As of Feb. 27, Rhonda said the camp was down to 81 tents.
“Some people have been housed, some have gone into shelters, some have just moved on,” she said. “More people are asking for tents, but we tell them to look for the services. I’m giving the City an opportunity.”
She said the city has set up a process to provide help and would have people at the Giles Center for the following four Wednesdays, from 9 a.m to 3 p.m.
“I will be there also, to try and encourage the people to get the help, especially the mental health that is needed,” Ms. Sneed said. “They trust me, I can kind of talk with most of them.”
So, for now, Cathy’s Camp remains a community, and a visible reminder that Richmond has a severe housing crisis.
What will happen after the camp is gone remains an open question.
AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID HENDERSON
David Henderson was staying at Camp Cathy before there was a Camp Cathy.
“I was parked here before the camp started. I was sleeping in my car,” he told the Defender on a chilly day in late February. He was standing in the parking lot of the Annie Giles Community Resource Center, formerly known as the Conrad Center, at 1400 Oliver Hill Way.
“I noticed the guy come by and he brought some tents,” Mr. Henderson said. “So I went and helped him put em up, me and another guy named Al. We started with maybe five, 10 tents. Now we’re up to maybe 100.”
Mr. Henderson, 67, a retired HVAC worker, is one of the people responsible for the day-today running of the camp. He’s not originally from Richmond, but says he has lived here about 15 years. Formerly homeless himself, he had found a place to stay a few weeks before, but still comes back to the camp every day to help out.
“So I don’t understand why, y’know, there’s a problem with it, because a lot of people need this. And the city is constantly trying to come with ideas how to remove it. And I cannot agree. Because I know the whole story, the peoples’ story, I know everything they’re talking about, and these are not bad people. But they are in trouble and they need help.
“The money is here,” he said. “I can feel that the money is here. So why is it that you’re going to disrupt these people, don’t give them an answer, and yet you feel like you’re doing the right thing? I don’t understand it. You see what I’m saying? So you disrupt all these people, what are they supposed to do? Go back on the streets, lay up on the streets all over Richmond? That’s better?”
Mr. Henderson said there are other encampments around the city, “but this one right here is full of people. It’s stationery. Why uproot ‘em? At all?
“I don’t know what the solution would be by moving the tents. The solution would be for the city to direct more money toward getting these people homes or places to live so that they don’t have to be in the tents, and if they can’t do that they should come with an idea that works. They got buildings all over Richmond. They could open buildings. They could make it more possible for people to have a more convenient way to get back on their feet.”
The first tents went up last August, he said.
“And the people are still here. A large amount of them are still here since they first came up, so it’s necessary for all of the people here, you see what I’m saying?
“And we keep the tent area nice, we keep it clean. We even clean up the parking lot and stuff so it doesn’t be an eyesore, it’s just tents. And whoever doesn’t understand that needs to come out and spend a couple days with us, y’know, maybe go in a tent and stay a coupl’a days and understand why it’s better than layin’ on the street or going in a building that’s going to put you out the next morning.
“And it’s safe,” he said. “We don’t have any problems here. There’s no problems. We don’t have any crimes going on. The police are not really coming by for any particular reason, y’know what I’m sayin, we’re not really causing attention to ourselves in that way. So I don’t understand the problem why it’s such a pain in the city’s butt other than you can see the tents which, hey, tent cities are all over the United States, so it’s nothing new? It’s visible. And visibility means there’s a lot of people that need help.
“And that’s the visible part I see. If you want look at the tents and say it’s an eyesore, well, there’s people in those tents. We have to understand that each tent represents a person. You think a person is an eyesore? Because that’s what you’re saying.
“Because they need this. They don’t have anywhere they can go.”
AN INTERVIEW WITH REGGIE GORDON
[Web admin’s note: for ease of reading, article commentary is centered while interview portions are aligned left.]
Reggie Gordon is Deputy Chief of the Administrative Office for Human Services, which oversees Social Services for the City of Richmond.
He’s also the guy who sent Rhonda Sneed the letter telling her she had to shut down Cathy’s Camp.
This is an interview he gave to the Defender on Feb. 27.
GORDON: Beginning in December, we began receiving information from security that a camp was set up, which was interesting, but it was on VCU land. When the camp went up, people who were sleeping in front of the shelter disappeared. Then information came from our team and Catholic Charities [Editor: which runs the cold weather shelter for the city] that a man came out and exposed himself and the police arrested him. We heard there was some prostitution and some drug use.
Then on Dec. 29, the team said a man had overdosed at the camp and had died. So the letter was to Rhonda, please take down the tent city, we’re here to help, we have a whole system ready to help.
When I called Rhonda, she said I was lying. I called the chief of police, asked for the date and name of the person who died. He did, the time was 10:45 am, he died on the 29th.
So we said it’s going to be more complicated, with all the people gravitating toward the camp, homeless, it would create a dangerous situation. And people in the shelter were complaining about activities in the parking lot.
DEFENDER: Where did you expect people to go?
GORDON: That’s a really good question. In the letter I sent to Rhonda, I said my mother was talking to a woman who goes to a church nearby who was taking care of her grandson. The grandson said he was going to leave and go live in the tent city. She later found out the grandmother went down to the camp, she had a picture of her son, and the people said he was there but had left.
I don’t know if the person who had died had left their home to go to the tent city. I don’t know how many people may have done this.
And a woman there now who is blind, and her payee [Editor: A person who handles someone else’s finances for them, like receiving a Social Security check] dropped her off at the tent city. That’s criminal to me that people who are getting $1,500 or more are dropping people off. We tried to coax the blind woman to come to the shelter, but she said no.
DEFENDER: So what’s your solution to the situation?
GORDON: My suggestion is to go tent by tent, talk to the people there, ask them do they have housing, an income, find out who had no resources, people who have jobs, but don’t want to stay in a shelter. Since the camp opened, we have offered them 10 shelter beds. Some people, not all, say they choose to stay in the tents.
The shelter is a hypothermia overflow shelter. It opens when the temperature is below 40 degrees. In a lot of cities it’s 32, in Richmond it’s 40. When the hypothermia shelter was in the city’s old Public Safety building on North 9th Street, people would spend the night sitting in chairs.
DEFENDER: What about the day, it was a Thursday, Jan. 30, I think, when the temperature was over 40 degrees, but it was raining, with winds at 56 miles an hour, the camp was flooded, tents had been blown down and the shelter wasn’t opened until 8:45 p.m.?
GORDON: The weather parameters for shelter are set by council. There are other conditions, they’re not pleasant, but the way it’s been designed is so no one freezes to death. On that day, since the governor declared a state of emergency, we were able to say it was a dangerous weather crisis, so we were able to open the shelter.
This has been going for on a long time. The city council, it has to do with the budget, here’s how much money there is to deal with the hypothermia shelter. And the city shelter isn’t the only option. There are also shelters run by Caritas, the Salvation Army, the Healing Place, Home Again.
As for the letter he sent to Ms. Sneed, Mr. Gordon said he felt there was a real danger at the camp, that he had been made aware of two instances that required first responders; that he had asked Ms. Sneed “to cease your program right away,” that the city had received information about “drug abuse, indecent exposure and prostitution” and that “we must work to resolve this chaotic situation.”
Mr. Gordon said the letter did not give a date by which the camp had to be shut down, and said the city had no plans to remove the tents by force.
GORDON: The letter said, OK, Rhonda, you have to shut down. But no date was ever set.”
He said the letter was dated Dec. 30.
That was two days after Blessing Warriors volunteer Cathy Davis, a key organizer of the camp, had died of congestive heart failure.
GORDON: What Rhonda has done, to her credit, she’s been able to collect them, and they are visible. … The compassionate thing is to learn what the story is of everyone there, if they have a family member they can go to, who are the people who need medical care? What about the people who have SSI? Are they receiving money for housing? Do they just have the wrong payee, someone who is just taking their money?
You may have 85 individuals, with 85 different situations. Giving food is OK, but this requires an in-depth, one-on-one approach. And I don’t think Richmond has the determination to go all the way in.
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