Christina Amano Dolan, Contributing Writer
The city collected the belongings of Richmond Coliseum’s homeless population last week, sparking controversy on social media. Online discussion surrounded claims of the city’s failure to properly aid its homeless community.
River City Medic Collective, a Richmond organization made up of various health care providers, posted about the incident last week. Circulating on both Twitter and Instagram, the post claims the city “completely destroyed all the property” of the homeless individuals in order to “tidy up” for first lady Jill Biden’s visit to VCU.
“People’s tents, chairs, sleeping bags, food, and much more was destroyed,” the post stated. “Thousands of dollars worth of survival property … this act perpetuated by the local Democratic Party and city officials was nothing short of disgusting.”
Jim Nolan, the press secretary for Mayor Levar Stoney, said the incident was not accurately portrayed on social media.
The City of Richmond Outreach Program has been in contact with the homeless individuals who were sleeping at the Coliseum and knows “all of these individuals by name and their personal stories,” Nolan said in an email.
The Department of Public Works worked with the individuals to ensure they had enough time to collect or remove their belongings, and some homeless individuals assisted the staff in cleaning the area, Nolan said.
“The City of Richmond has a duty to ensure a clean and sanitary city,” Nolan said. “Moreover, we are responsible for the maintenance of public property, like the Coliseum.”
The city received complaints about abandoned bags and the “smell of urine” in the area, Nolan said.
DPW’s intervention being associated with the first lady’s visit is “pure conspiracy theory that couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Nolan said.
Local activist Chelsea Higgs Wise said this incident serves as another example of the city’s neglect towards its homeless population.
“At this point, we should all recognize that this is a blatant spit in the face, to say that we would rather have a clean look to the city than truly taking care of the people that we’ve disenfranchised and left to have nothing,” Wise said.
Wise, along with others on social media, compared the Coliseum incident to a project conducted at Camp Cathy last year that sparked similar controversy online. Camp Cathy was a tent encampment located next to the Annie Giles Community Center.
In an attempt to protect against the spread of COVID-19, city officials removed the tents and property of homeless individuals staying at Camp Cathy.
Using emergency funding of $2.1 million delegated by the Stoney administration, Homeward, a regional homeless coordinating group, and its partners relocated camp residents to local hotels and inns. Meals were also provided, according to a Richmond Free Press article.
In addition to last week’s controversy surrounding the cleanup of the Coliseum, community members gathered to mourn the death of a local homeless man at a vigil on Saturday.
The vigil was held in the parking lot of RVA Light, a local nonprofit coffee shop that provides resources to struggling community members. Attendees dressed in red to honor the life of Richard “Red” Brown, a longtime visitor of the coffee shop.
Rachel Johnson, a director of RVA Light, recounted Red’s devotion to the organization’s community. Red visited the coffee shop every morning to read Our Daily Bread devotionals, took up a security role and directed people into RVA Light to seek the proper resources.
“He was oftentimes giving so much more help to other people, when he, you know, was not necessarily wanting that for himself,” Johnson said. “He would decline to get help but make sure that everyone else around him was taken care of.”
Johnson said she is thankful Red accepted help by staying at a hotel, as she believes he died in “relative comfort.”
Johnson paid tribute to Red in prayer, with attendees raising their candles and offering a moment of silence in remembrance of Red. Following the prayer, the group carried their candles to where Red lived, on the corner of Broad and Belvidere. One attendee marked “Red’s Spot” on a fire hydrant where candles, flowers, and balloons were placed.
News Editor Katharine DeRosa contributed to this report.