This story was published between issues of the newspaper. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes.
Originally published March 19, 2020, on the Virginia Defender Facebook page.
By Phil Wilayto
RICHMOND, VA, March 19 — Cathy’s Camp, the tent city located outside Richmond’s cold weather shelter where scores of homeless people have lived since last August, is coming down.
The camp began with just a few tents. It grew, and at its height sheltered around 130 people in about 125 tents, assisted by the all-volunteer nonprofit organization Blessing Warriors RVA.
The irony of a tent city existing outside a closed homeless shelter was stunning. (The city shelter is only opened when the temperature drops below 40 degrees, even if it’s raining, snowing or flooding.)
On Dec. 29, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Human Services Reggie Gordon sent a letter to the camp saying they must leave, without setting an eviction date, but also without offering any alternative shelter.
A meeting hosted Feb. 5 at the cold weather shelter by City Councilmember Ellen Robertson to discuss city homelessness policies drew more than 200 people, most of whom were not homeless. The meeting became tense, with participants demanding the city promise not to close the camp until all residents had found permanent housing. After an hour, Robertson was escorted from the building by security personnel.
By then the media coverage was creating a huge public relations problem for the administration of Mayor Levar Stoney, which responded by organizing social service agencies and nonprofits to meet with camp residents and counsel them about existing services.
And the residents were told they had until March 30 to move.
With the development of the coronavirus pandemic, most camp residents agreed to be moved to temporary shelter in hotels or motels. But the way the camp was finally dismantled became just one more example of official callousness and disrespect toward people whose only crime has been not to have a home.
The city administration now told Blessing Warriors that city crews would begin removing tents today, March 19. The assumption was that the residents would be moved into temporary housing before the tents, most of which had been donated, were removed.
Instead, workers showed up on the evening of March 18 with a grapple truck – a large truck with a boom and claw attachment – along with Virginia Commonwealth University police. VCU owns the land where the camp is located, but had been allowing the residents to stay there.
At about 7 p.m., the city crew went to work, lifting up empty tents with the claw and unceremoniously dumping them in the back of the truck.
The sight was too much for the residents still at the camp. Some suffered anxiety attacks. One woman reportedly was taken to a hospital after exhibiting signs of a stroke.
As of this afternoon, there were still about 15 residents at the camp.
“It appears that the [removal] project has been aborted,” Blessing Warriors volunteer Bridget Whitaker Williams told the Defender. “There are some campers here that were left behind. A written press release said that efforts today have been suspended, but no one is communicating with us. We’re still here and still have new folks walking in. As long as people are here we will be here to make sure people are fed and taken care of.”
A city press release issued this morning stated in part:
“On Wednesday, March 18, the Blessing Warriors organization began removing their property from the site and requested help disposing of vacant and unwanted tents, the residents of which had been moved into emergency shelters or alternatives. The city will continue to remove vacant and unwanted tents and items on Thursday, continuing to coordinate with Blessing Warriors and residents as needed.
“Access to the camp site will be restricted to authorized staff beginning Thursday to meet public health guidelines. Ongoing efforts will continue to focus on offering safe indoor accommodations to provide consistent access to necessities during the pandemic.”
Camp residents are being transported to area hotels and motels by local nonprofits affiliated with the federal network known as the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care.
Blessing Warriors Director Rhonda Sneed said she had been told that no one would be told to leave the temporary housing until more permanent housing had been found. According to the city media release,
“CoC has offered two weeks of emergency shelter alternative housing in order to facilitate rapid placement of people at risk in safe accommodations. During this time, the GRCoC outreach staff, including city partners, will monitor the situation and extend the period if the health and safety of those individuals require it. The effort will now focus on connecting those same individuals to permanent housing units and services like employment opportunities and healthcare.”
The Defender will continue to follow this situation and report on any new developments.