Community News


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.


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.”


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.

H. Lewis Salomonsky is a dependable donor to the political campaigns of many local politicians, including Mayor Levar Stoney. He’s also Shockoe Bottom’s biggest real estate owner. With his partner David White, he was behind the plan to build a baseball stadium there, in the heart of the former slave-trading district.

The project actually had nothing to do with baseball. The Bottom is in a flood plain, and Salomonsky wanted the stadium because it would come with a concourse, or road, over which emergency vehicles could access the area in case of a flood. That was a legal requirement for the 500 high-rent apartments he and White wanted to build around the stadium.

Salomonsky is also the guy who in 2003 was convicted of bribing then-City Council member Gwen Hedgepeth on a development-related issue. When he got out of prison, his civil rights were quickly restored by then-Gov. Bob McDonnell, allowing him to go back to “developing.” He later again became the subject of controversy when his questionable attempt to qualify for millions of dollars in historic tax abatements for one of his Shockoe Bottom projects caused City Council to change the rules for that program.

Salomonsky has a real passion for building high-rent apartments, and not much interest in low-income folks.

In fact, he’d really like it if they would leave the city altogether.

On May 10, 2013, WRIR’s “Open Source” host Chris Dovi asked the developer about his views on Richmond’s problems. This is how he answered:

“Right now we have a ghetto of people making between 30,000 and 50,000 a year and we have a dearth of people making from 50,000 to 100,000 a year. And we need that higher level of education and employment to balance the city.”

And how would Richmond get that “balance”?

He said it would come with a future “metamorphosis of minorities moving to the counties for better schools, the empty nesters, both older and younger moving into the city, with no children and the decline in the school system, you will eventually see the city’s tax rate below that of the counties. And on that day the city will be, let’s say 25 to 40 years from now, infinitely wealthier than the counties, but we – it’s still a foot race to get there.”

Get it? Richmond has too many people making less than $50,000 a year.

The children of these “minorities” fill the public schools, which keeps property taxes high. Get rid of the “minorities” and you can shrink the school system and attract a lot more childless homeowners and high-end renters.

Now, Salomonsky didn’t say anything about actually forcing poor people to leave Richmond, he just thinks it would be a great idea. But forcing poor people out is exactly what is happening.

This is why we think the mayor doesn’t want to improve the schools. Why RRHA wants tear down 4,000 units of public housing. Why GTRC cut back bus routes in poor neighborhoods. Why the RPD can’t seem to solve the problem of violent street crime. Sooner or later, poor folks just can’t take it anymore and leave for the counties.

And as long as the misery is invisible, most people don’t have to think about it.

Which is why Cathy’s Camp is so important and why the City wants to shut it down: It has made the misery visible.

Categories: Community News

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