Katharine DeRosa, Contributing Writer
Richmond Police announced Tuesday they are looking for at least five people who they say cut down fencing placed for a renovation project around Abner Clay Park on Sept. 30.
Police said in a Facebook post that it cost $2,000 to put the fencing back up, and people shown in photos of the incident are wanted for destruction of property, trespassing and/or possibly attempted grand larceny.
Richmond Councilwoman Kim Gray says renovations on Abner Clay Park in Jackson Ward are necessary, while members of a nonprofit that serves food to homeless people are frustrated at having to move to another location.
Food Not Bombs, which operated at the park every Sunday, posted images on Sept. 26 of chain link and barbed wire fencing that was placed around the perimeter of the park. The post said group members, longtime parkgoers and meal distribution patrons weren’t notified that the fence would be put up.
“This is a pattern of displacement of some of the most marginalized residents from city parks,” the post said. “It furthers the gentrification and displays a lack of concern towards lower income residents in nearby public housing.”
As a result of the renovations, Food Not Bombs is returning its Sunday meal distribution to Monroe Park, where it had operated prior to the renovations that closed the park for about two years in fall 2016.
Gray said she found the criticism “insulting” because there has been talk of renovations for years, and she thinks the Jackson Ward community deserves the coming improvements to park.
“We’ve been marginalized in our city,” Gray said. “We [Jackson Ward] are not designed to have a park filled with active addicts.”
Tamara Jenkins, spokesperson for the City of Richmond’s park, recreation and community facilities, said the park will see improvements to its sidewalks, plaza and athletic field. The park renovations, which are scheduled to be completed in September 2020, include a basketball court and a new pavilion structure.
“The improvements to the area will create an open and inviting space that can host a variety of events, while still keeping with the charm of the Jackson Ward neighborhood,” Jenkins said in an email.
Abner Clay Park has been home to Food Not Bombs for three years now, and Gray says it hasn’t been a practical use of the park space.
“I agree with feeding the community, but I don’t agree with making the community unsafe for the kids,” Gray said. “We have drunk and high people approaching the kids.”
Kurt Vinlander, a volunteer with Food Not Bombs, said the group has never had a problem with unsafe people approaching children.
“Richmond Food Not Bombs has been here for 25 years and it’s never been an issue,” Vinlander said. “Just because somebody has substance issues doesn’t mean they’re a danger around kids.”
Vinlander said children volunteer to help in the kitchen and serve food with their parents.
“And food’s not exactly dangerous for kids,” Vinlander said.
Gray said she is eager for the renovations because the park “needed an update.” There are many inclines and steps, she said, making it difficult for people who use wheelchairs or walkers to get around.
One Food Not Bombs volunteer, Aaron Bish, is not excited to relocate to Monroe Park, saying now the group has to email ahead of time to serve food at Monroe Park, has to stay in certain areas and can’t give out items other than food.
According to Monroe Park’s website, all charitable food distribution must be registered ahead of time by phone or in person.
“We served there [Abner Clay Park] every Sunday for 23 years,” Bish said. “[Now] if there’s another event going on, we can’t be there. That’s part of the reason why we stayed in Abner Clay Park.”
Bish said he thinks the relocation could be an opportunity for VCU students to become more involved with Food Not Bombs; many volunteers are students or recent graduates.
“Back in the day, students avoided going into Monroe Park because they wanted to avoid the homeless,” Bish said. “I guess it could be an opportunity to talk about our organization.”
The Monroe Park Conservancy website says it follows Virginia Department of Health guidelines for food distribution, which state that charitable donations are exempt from state and local regulations. Organizations, such as nonprofit homeless shelters and hunger prevention programs, can accept food prepared in private homes or unlicensed facilities.
Food Not Bombs will keep the same time schedule and will be serving food in Monroe Park at 4 p.m. on Sundays.
News Editor Hannah Eason contributed to this report.