At Cathy’s Camp, homeless residents of Richmond face opposition from the local government — but advocates believe the city isn’t doing enough.
Outside of a hypothermia shelter funded by the city along Oliver Hill Way, dozens of tents are set up to shelter Richmond’s homeless. The site is taking the place of former homeless shelters such as the Public Safety Building, which was criticized for poor conditions, and the Annie Giles Center in Shockoe Valley.
Volunteers for Blessing Warriors RVA ensure that aid is given to those who reside at Cathy’s Camp, while other homeless service providers including Commonwealth Catholic Charities and The Daily Planet visit the site to find the people they serve and assist them.
The encampment site is named in memory of Cathy Davis who, along with her friend Rhonda Sneed, had the idea of putting up the tents last year. Davis died in her sleep in late 2019, before the number of tents grew to 70.
“The tent city is certainly not an ideal housing solution by any stretch of the imagination, but at least they are in a safe area where services can be delivered to them in one location,” said Shawnee Hansen, founder of Richmond Friends of the Homeless.
Other homeless advocates have a bleaker sentiment towards the situation, considering what Cathy’s Camp indicates for the city’s future.
“We as a community in Richmond are failing the people living in Cathy’s Camp, because living in tents is what they’ve been driven to,” said Allison Bogdanovic, Executive Director of Virginia Supportive Housing. “We’ve all failed.”
Members of the organizations assisting Cathy’s Camp insist their efforts will continue, despite warnings and efforts to take down the tent city by the local government.
A letter sent to Sneed from Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration asked for the tents to be taken down, calling it a “grave safety risk” to the city and citing incidents of indecency and drug abuse. Another letter addressed to Sneed threatened to take down the tents if they were not removed before Jan. 31. The tents were never removed.
Concerns from the city prompted a meeting held inside the shelter adjacent to Cathy’s Camp, where city officials spoke to residents of the tent city and its advocates about their futures.
At the meeting, city officials introduced a new plan to combat the city’s homeless problem. The plan called for 150 emergency shelter beds, 300 additional supportive housing units, increased financial support to homeless providers, and financial support to prevent individuals from being evicted from homes.
“So many Americans are isolated from the discussion of homelessness that all we see is a person panhandling,” said Michael Jones, 9th district Council member. “It’s not just a Richmond issue; it’s a country issue. We’re fine with people being homeless.”
Jones, who has been a part of Richmond City Council since 2017, expresses deep regret for Richmond’s failure to solve its homeless problem. Before running for office, Jones helped his church feed the homeless — until the city required a permit to do just that.
“That was the closest thing to heaven I’ve ever been a part of, but the city said you had to pay for a permit to feed people,” said Jones. “They wanted to re-do Monroe Park, and I said, ‘Where can we feed people, then?’”
Organizations and nonprofits have acknowledged the difficulty in combating homelessness due to the time and resources required. In March of last year, Virginia Supportive Housing was approved to convert a former nursing home in eastern Henrico into low-income housing for the homeless.
According to the organization, the project will take another two years to complete, costing $20 million coming from 25 different financial sources.
“There are still 550 people experiencing homelessness in the region,” said Bogdanovic. “People are waiting years to get into our programs. We know how to solve this problem, but there aren’t enough resources.”
Studies have found that investing in ending homelessness would yield benefits to society. A study done by the National Alliance to End Homelessness found investments in permanent supportive housing can decrease homelessness by 30 percent. The study also found that costs to taxpayers are reduced by 49.5 percent when supportive housing is provided to the homeless.
“Across all programs, we have a 97 percent success rate. First someone has to have stability in a home, and know where they’re going to sleep tonight — then they can address other issues in life, like medical needs or going back to school,” said Bogdanovic. “If there’s no foundation of a home, then it’s harder to do those things.”
Mayor Stoney and the City of Richmond have sparked controversies in local funding projects. Stoney endorsed the Navy Hill development project, which provoked city-wide discussions over whether the $1.5 billion project would take funds away from the school system and other government programs. City Council canceled the deal in February.
“If we’re giving tax subsidies to families who are affluent, then what can we do for families who are not?” said Jones. “We, as a government, have an ability to help — and I’m tired of bumping my head against the wall not seeing that help happen.”
Top Photo via Virginia Defenders For Freedom, Justice & Equality/Facebook