Katharine DeRosa, Contributing Writer
David Henderson, who lives in a tent city on land leased by VCU, said he has been looking for help outside the camp since September. He hasn’t had much luck.
He had received information on housing assistance, Henderson said, but none of the sources followed through to help him.
“All I got was bogus letters,” Henderson said. “This is the life of the camp. These people are settling down here because they feel they have nowhere else to go.”
Henderson lives in one of the 91 tents at Camp Cathy, which is located next to a city-funded hypothermia shelter on Oliver Hill Way in Church Hill, which only opens when the temperature falls below 40 degrees. The camp was established by Rhonda Sneed in September, who founded Blessing Warriors RVA, a nonprofit in Richmond that serves homeless people. City officials want to remove the camp, citing safety concerns.
Sneed said she received a letter in December from Reginald Gordon, the director of the City of Richmond’s office of community wealth, telling her to shut down Camp Cathy.
“I have been made aware of two incidents requiring first responders, demonstrating that a harmful environment has been created by the tent city,” Gordon wrote. “Therefore, I have no other option but to ask you to cease your program right away.”
“I told him [Gordon] I would shut it down if he had some place for them to go,” Sneed said. “If he took all 100 something out today, I would get 100 more.”
Sneed said she agreed this isn’t a permanent solution to homelessness.
“This is just a step,” Sneed said.
The field where Camp Cathy is located belongs to the city, but VCU has a 40-year lease on the land.
VCU spokesperson Mike Porter said that VCU has no plans to build on the land.
“VCU and VCU Health are collaborating with the city and Homeward to connect these members of our community to city resources for shelter and food as well as to help relocate them as soon as possible,” Porter said in an email.
Porter expressed concerns about long-term housing on the land. The State Department of Environmental Quality found the soil to be contaminated with arsenic and other chemicals in 2004.
Sneed’s refusal to remove the tents and people from the area resulted in a meeting between city officials, camp residents and community members that took place inside the Giles Community Center, adjacent to the camp, on Feb. 5.
Advocates involved in nonprofits that support Camp Cathy — such as Blessing Warriors RVA, Moments of Hope Outreach and Helping the Homeless — were disappointed in the outcome.
“It was a circus,” said Traci Byrd-Eagles, a volunteer with Camp Cathy, “No plan was discussed at all.”
Floods on Thursday afternoon severely damaged the camp. Blankets were left soaked, and five people were taken to the hospital, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The doors to the adjacent shelter didn’t open until that night because of the temperature rule. After first responders showed up on site, staff members came by to open the shelter.
The City of Richmond published a strategic plan to end homelessness on Sunday. It outlines seven strategies to reduce homelessness:
- Provide financial support for individuals and families facing eviction
- Create 150 shelter beds with existing nonprofits and faith-based organizations
- Increase the number of supportive housing units by 300
- Increase financial support to local nonprofits
- Provide additional services and housing for underserved populations
- Connect individuals to employment resources and behavioral health sciences
- Educate citizens on the homeless population
This winter, the homeless population in Richmond has increased by 10%, marking the first jump since 2011, according to a biannual census conducted in January, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
A 2019 report collected by Homeward, a planning and coordination service for homeless people living in Richmond, counted 429 homeless adults and 68 homeless children in the city region. Of these 497 people, 152 were not living in a shelter. Last month, 549 were counted.
Sneed said the camp has helped people get on their feet and establish themselves in the community.
“They look out for each other,” Sneed said. “A lot of people have gotten jobs. Some have gotten housing.”
Henderson, the Camp Cathy resident, said residents work together to keep things running smoothly.
“We all work together to keep things calm, and to be peaceful and meet and greet, so it doesn’t feel so bad when we’re standing alone sometimes with no one to talk to,” Henderson said. “We can group together here and we can talk, chat and tell stories, and when we do that, we begin to feel like we’re a family.”