A society without a name
Inside the Panera just blocks from VCU’s freshman dorms, students chat animatedly, laugh and flirt in the many filled tables and booths — an escape from days filled with textbooks and studying in the wake of finals.
In an unfrequented corner of the restaurant sits Maria Montoni. She clutches a notebook in one hand and a bible in the other. A black plastic trash bag lies beside her seat; it contains all of her possessions.
According to a 2013 report by Homeward, a local social services organization, Montoni is one of more than 1,000 people living in Richmond without a home.
“I woke up age 54 last year realizing I’ve never owned my own home. That’s okay if you’re a little girl and your dad pays the bills,” Montoni said. “It’s not okay if you’re 54 and you never learned life skills because your mother was an alcoholic and your father wasn’t there.”
Aside from the education and skills necessary to find work, Montoni said her medical conditions have been a hindrance to stability her entire life.
Montoni said she discovered several years ago she suffers from sleep apnea, a disease characterized by episodes of stopped breathing while asleep and, as a consequence, severe fatigue when awake.
Montoni said her sleep apnea is in addition to traumatic brain injury from surviving sexual assault and domestic violence as a child.
Montoni is on a schedule though. On this particular night she will go to a weekly meeting for the homeless advocacy group ASWAN, short for A Society Without a Name.
“I see many people in our community out and they’re often just wandering,” Montoni said. “I want something more, that’s why I’m active.”
On Dec. 6, ASWAN held a rally in Monroe Park to protest the threat of an 18-month closure, a move which the organization said will displace the homeless who congregate there and severely limit access to other services the park provides.
The Monroe Park Conservancy is the nonprofit group created to facilitate the renovation of the oldest park in the city. A group representative said the historic landmark is in need of major upgrades concerning aspects such as dried-out dirt and faulty sewage, which she said negatively affect the park’s aesthetic.
In 2014 the Richmond City Council approved a plan establishing that Richmond pay half of the $6 million to rebuild the park, while the Conservancy pay the other half through donations from the public.
The plan allows the Conservancy to lease Monroe Park from the City of Richmond for 30 years while the city retains the right to terminate the lease at any time. Under the plan, VCU will continue to maintain upkeep of the park.
According to their website, the Conservancy has raised almost $1.6 million thus far. Although only totaling 53 percent of their goal, the website states the group hopes to reach their total in 2016 and will begin renovations shortly after.
ASWAN said the park’s closure, recent evictions of local homeless camps and prison-like conditions of the city’s cold-weather overflow shelters have contributed to the marginalization of Richmond’s homeless community.
“They’re not just dispersing us, they’re displacing our entire community,” Montoni said. “Things have deteriorated to the point that soon, anyone who is homeless will have no place to go.”
A severance of services
The renovations would have a serious impact on the homeless in Richmond, according to ASWAN member Jess Izen.
Izen said hundreds of Richmond’s homeless depend on the park’s portable toilets for access to restrooms, since VCU and most private businesses typically bar the homeless from their establishments.
For years, local churches such as Powhatan Community Church and Second Presbyterian Church have been providing food, warm clothing and socks in the park for the homeless population as well.
Some ASWAN members believe that with Monroe Park closed, there’s no guarantee those services will continue in a location as accessible as the park, which they say is located central to where many health and social services are provided for homeless people.
“We are potentially in crisis — to not be able to do what we do.”
Izen said the city and VCU have created a pattern of cutting services available to the homeless, and is concerned about whether nonprofits will be permitted to provide their current services without a license when the park re-opens.
Monroe Park Conservancy President Alice Massie said she could not guarantee nonprofits would be allowed to operate in the park without a license upon its reopening, but said it would still be accessible to anyone.
“We’re not going to kick homeless people out of the park,” Massie said. “It’s still going to be public so I don’t see a reason why nonprofits would not be allowed to be there.”
Some members of People for Monroe Park, a group of churches partnered to help keep the park open, say the problem is more immediate though.
According to Valerie Burton, a People for Monroe Park member, there would be no place to continue providing current services to the homeless without a license while the park is undergoing renovations.
“We are potentially in crisis — to not be able to do what we do,” Burton said.
Catherine Howard is VCU’s Vice Provost of Community Engagement and one of eight directors of the Monroe Park Conservancy. Howard said the Conservancy is doing everything to ensure there’s no break in services provided in the park on Sundays.
According to Howard, these efforts include a survey to identify service providers and invite them to a public forum hosted by social services organization Homeward, but the focus of the discussion should be finding an alternative to providing services in the park.
“The issue, for me, is people should not be getting fed and getting services outdoors in all kinds of weather,” Howard said. “Why is the city not providing a place where people can go get something to eat inside?”
Howard also said she believes many people who come to Monroe Park on weekends for services such as food and warm clothing are not homeless or in desperate need, and are simply looking for a chance “to get free stuff.”
Howard said the survey by Homeward is also looking to identify whether individuals who come to the park are really homeless.
“I think that you get a lot of people who are not homeless that come for those free services or free handouts, and that’s what we’re trying to get a handle on,” Howard said.
Howard said this issue might provide an opportunity to longer-term solutions and she hopes that’s the direction the conversations go.
“We’re trying to be mindful and think about it now rather than waiting for the fences to go up,” Howard said.
But neither the Conservancy nor city have a plan for where the homeless could use restrooms or receive current services when the park closes. They also have not found the long-term alternative Howard said she is hoping for.
According to Howard, the Conservancy is hopeful the public forum, which should take place sometime in December after survey information is gathered, will provide these answers.
“It’s a business,” Montoni said. “They think homeless people anywhere near VCU looks bad to students who may want to go there in the future and the politicians think homeless people downtown looks bad for Richmond.”
Out of sight, out of mind
Despite a grim outlook, some people believe the homeless community has no choice but to continue fighting for the park to stay open.
Among them are Montoni and Sababu Sanyika, a homeless VCU student and ASWAN member. Sanyika said the homeless have run out of places to stay or use restrooms in Richmond and that VCU is part of the problem.In 2009, VCU implemented a policy requiring a valid government-issued photo ID to use the James Branch Cabell Library.
Previously, Cabell was accessible to students, faculty and the general public without much restriction, but the new policy effectively disqualifies homeless people from using the facility.
Sanyika says that he believes the policy has led the VCU Police Department to engage in profiling, which has been a detriment to him.
VCU Police spokesperson Corey Byers confirmed Sanyika was charged with trespassing three times by VCUPD.
Sanyika says one of his charges came in Cabell when someone complained about him being in the facility despite him being a student, he believes it’s because he “looks homeless.”
Policies like this one and VCU’s aid in constructing the Conrad Center, a now-shuttered soup kitchen in Shockoe Bottom, have led Sanyika and other ASWAN members to claim the university and city are responsible for gentrifying the campus and downtown areas of Richmond.
“Out of sight, out of mind — they want poor and homeless people out of the way,” Sanyika said.
“They’re trying to chase us out to the south side and the edges of Richmond where we will not have access to the churches and services we receive.”
Sanyika said this is why homeless populations have a tendency to move downtown.
“The downtown area is essential to the homeless community,” Sanyika said.
Another ASWAN member who is enrolled in several classes at VCU, Carlton Webb, said the park closing would just be the latest in a series of battles the homeless community has lost to the city and VCU.
Webb said the the police have been kicking the homeless out of alleyways and even encampments.
“They closed (an encampment) down on Marshall Street, where people have been for a couple years, not too long ago and fenced it off,” Webb said. “It’s a plan to eliminate any reason for homeless people to be downtown.”
Left in the cold
Members of ASWAN are also concerned with the conditions of the city’s Cold Weather Overflow shelter.
The shelter is run by Commonwealth Catholic Charities and contracted by the Richmond Department of Social Services, which an ASWAN press release described as having “prison-like conditions.”
The City of Richmond partners with several churches and nonprofits that provide shelters to the homeless. When there is an overflow of demand for shelter, citizens are transferred to the overflow shelter, which is the former Public Safety building on North Ninth Street.
“It’s almost like a maximum security prison, anywhere you move they got a guard to make sure you’re in your spot.”
The overflow shelter is open anytime between October and April when temperatures fall below 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the day or night. Anyone can use the shelter, although due to the facility’s condition, some homeless people choose not to stay in it.
Sanyika said inside the facility, the lights stay on overnight and some people have to sleep on the floor with almost no space between them. Others, who sleep in chairs in the courtroom, are forced to sleep upright to save space.
“It’s almost like a maximum security prison, anywhere you move they got a guard to make sure you’re in your spot,” Sanyika said.
Sanyika said armed guards patrol the building the entire time to ensure no one breaks the rules.
“Then they are on the streets where apparently it’s illegal for them to be, so they’re just thrown in jail.”
According to Sanyika, people sleeping on the chairs are warned by the guards to remain upright if they lay down; if they lay down again they are kicked out into the below-40 degree weather.
“I don’t know why they have guards. They don’t have a behavior problem with people in the shelter,” Sanyika said. “People come in tired and glad to be out of the cold, maybe they talk for a little then they just go to sleep.”
The Richmond Department of Social Services could not be reached for comment.
ASWAN members say they’re hoping to change not only the way the homeless in Richmond are sheltered, but many of the conditions which they say further marginalize that community.
“Many people who are homeless in this city end up with no place to go,” Izen said. “Then they are on the streets where apparently it’s illegal for them to be, so they’re just thrown in jail.”
ASWAN wants to change that and their petition demands the city allow a reserved space for a permanent homeless encampment with bathrooms, trash services and shelter.
“At this point there needs to be public outcry to make it happen.”
It also asks the Cold Weather Shelter be open at all times from October to April regardless of the temperature, the guards in the shelter be disarmed and the lights turned off at night.
Regarding the closure of Monroe Park, the petition demands a series of meetings be held between ASWAN and representatives of the city government and the Monroe Park Conservancy to ensure the interests of the homeless community are satisfied while the park is closed.
ASWAN is also asking a section of the park be kept open so the homeless can use portable restrooms, and service providers can continue to utilize the park — a request that members of the Conservancy say cannot be satisfied because of reasons relating to construction.
The petition also demands that the conservancy and the city give a guarantee that nonprofits will be allowed to provide services in the park when it re-opens.
“We don’t have a lot of faith that they (Monroe Park Conservancy and the City of Richmond) will act on their own initiative,” Izen said. “At this point there needs to be public outcry to make it happen.”
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