Richmond’s homeless community is still reeling after Monroe Park’s renovation

Monroe Park's renovation was completed in the fall last year. Photo by Jon Mirador.

Hannah Eason, Contributing Writer

For some, Sunday mornings at Abner Clay Park in Jackson Ward start with a plate of beans, rice and pasta courtesy of Food Not Bombs, a nationwide collection of groups that serves food to people experiencing homelessness, including those in Richmond.

Abner Clay Park has been a space for the service since Monroe Park closed for renovations in November 2016. Before closing, Monroe Park was a common gathering place for the Richmonders experiencing homelessness. The 22-month renovation, which began in late 2016, has left the population without that space.

It was all intentional, said Arthur Kay, a volunteer with Food Not Bombs. Kay said the Monroe Park Conservancy — the nonprofit created to facilitate the renovation of Richmond’s oldest park — has tried to relocate people experiencing homelessness away from VCU.

“The people that we serve themselves said that they didn’t feel welcome [at Monroe Park],” Kay said. “You don’t have to swim against the current in that situation, so we got pushed here.”

Kay is the founder of Arbor Earth Foundation, a nonprofit that gives tax-deductible donations to Food Not Bombs.

“It’s kind of like what’s happening across a lot of cities in this country — they’re just trying to marginalize the homeless population so that they’re not bringing down property values,” Kay said. “I would say that the renovation project was a missed opportunity to bring more people into the fold and have more of those transects between different populations.”

In September last year, the park reopened to the public, ending a nearly four-year process that began in 2014, when the Richmond City Council approved the renovation. Half of the $6 million project was funded by the city, while the Conservancy paid the other half with donations from the public.

While Monroe Park was originally an area for churches and organizations to gather and serve food, services are now limited to designated time slots.

“They intentionally tried to get rid of people there — not just homeless but poor people and poor families,” said Darek Jones, a volunteer with Food Not Bombs. “Nobody hangs out there anymore, no one serves there anymore.”

W.B. Braxton, who was eating a meal provided by Food Not Bombs on Sunday, said many things need to be done to assist Richmond’s populations in need, including the installation of portable toilets in Abner Clay and Monroe Park.

Several Jackson Ward residents experienced issues connected to food distribution for people experiencing homelessness Abner Clay Park, according to ABC8-WRIC. The May 2017 article said the neighborhood surrounding the park has had problems with trash after the events, defecation in the park and graffiti on nearby buildings.

A year-round homeless shelter was a common request among homeless people at Abner Clay Park. The city currently only has a cold-weather shelter — the Conrad Center on Oliver Hill Way opens when temperatures fall below 40 degrees.

“We need a year-round shelter because homelessness does not take a holiday and homelessness is not a seasonal problem,” Braxton said.

Alice Massie, president of the Monroe Park Conservancy, said the Conservancy made efforts to guide people experiencing homelessness to services before Monroe Park closed, including outreach to the VCU community and organizations that serve food.

Massie said there were often multiple reports of food poisoning from the food distribution at Monroe Park on Monday mornings because of a lack of regulation of nonprofit food servicers. The Monroe Park Conservancy’s solution was to schedule time slots for serving food, only on Saturday and Sundays. Servicers do not need a permit, nor do they have to pay a fee.  

There has been some controversy over the amount of benches in Monroe Park following the renovations. Massie said that the Conservancy plans to buy more benches in the future.

“[Monroe Park] is a green living room for any law-abiding person,” Massie said. “So it doesn’t really matter how you are or what you are doing as long as it’s legal.”

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