Community News


Originally published in the Summer 2020 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 62, printed August 14. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Summer 2020 issue or download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

A resident of Cathy’s Camp walks back to her tent after receiving a meal at the tent city set up outside Richmond’s cold-weather shelter on Oliver Hill Way. Photo by Phil Wilayto

By Phil Wilayto

It’s no secret that Richmond is in a severe housing crisis. To its shame, Virginia’s capital city has the second-highest rate of evictions of any city in the country, with some 2,000 city households currently facing the possibility of being evicted. While some may find cheaper housing or double up with relatives or friends, others will inevitably end up on the street.

From January 2018 to January 2019, the number of people in the region staying in shelters or sleeping outside increased for the first time since 2011, with the numbers shooting up a staggering 10 percent.

The Annie Giles Community Resource Center, located in a desolate area of the East End on Oliver Hill Way across from the city jail, is the shelter of last resort for the city’s homeless folks, but it isn’t opened unless the temperature drops below 40 degrees – even in a rainstorm, flood or hurricane. As a result, people without housing are left to fend for themselves in the worst kinds of weather.

Last summer, a few people began setting up tents behind the shelter, on a grassy area owned by Virginia Commonwealth University. As word spread, more people joined them and the encampment grew into a little tent city. At its height, some 130 people were being sheltered in around 125 brightly colored, neatly spaced tents.

Several nonprofit organizations provided the tents and other support for the camp, chief among them Blessing Warriors, a Black-led, all-volunteer group that brings food, water, blankets, clothing and other supplies to homeless people around the area.

The community came to be known as Cathy’s Camp, in honor of a volunteer at the camp who died from long-standing health problems. There were regular camp meetings to establish rules and means to enforce them: no drugs, alcohol or harassment of other campers. A few portajohns were brought in. Meals were provided. Security teams were organized. Richmond Food Not Bombs set up a hand-washing station. Rides for doctors’ appointments and other personal errands were arranged. The tent city became a functioning, self-governing, multiracial community.

And it also became a powerful and public symbol of the depth and breadth of the local homelessness crisis, which became a political problem for Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney.

On Dec. 29, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Human Services Reggie Gordon sent a letter to the camp saying the residents must leave. The letter didn’t set an eviction date, but neither did it offer any alternative shelter.

A meeting hosted Feb. 5 at the cold-weather shelter by 6th District Councilmember Ellen Robertson to discuss City homelessness policies drew more than 200 people, most of whom were not homeless. (The Defenders helped by setting up a Facebook page to promote the event.) 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 mayor’s administration, which responded by arranging for social service agencies and nonprofits to meet with camp residents and counsel them about existing services.

Then 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 had been not to have a home.

The administration told Blessing Warriors that crews would begin removing tents on 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 the evening before with a grapple truck – a large truck with a boom-and-claw attachment – along with VCU police.

At about 7 p.m., just before dark, the 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.

A City press release issued the next day claimed that, “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.”

Many of the camp residents were put up by the City in local hotels, although some that this reporter visited were among the most disreputable in town, with reports of filthy conditions, bedbugs and other problems.

Blessing Warriors Director Rhonda Sneed said she had been told that no one would have to leave the temporary housing until more permanent housing had been found. Whether that promise has been kept is not known at this time. Meanwhile, Blessing Warriors continues its nightly rounds caring for the city’s homeless.

The tent city that grew outside Richmond’s cold-weather shelter is no more, but the spirit of defiant dignity that it represented lives on in the ongoing fight for housing justice.

Categories: Community News

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