Ask Howard William Smith Jr. why he came to Richmond last March from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the answer is simple: “Warmth.”
“It was 22 below zero last winter. I took my last $200 and got an Amtrak train. This is as far as it brought me,” he says.
Smith, a veteran, lived in a tent “on the outskirts of town” until three weeks ago, when he received housing, but he comes to Monroe Park every weekend for the services provided there. “Clothing, shoes, and definitely food all the time.”
Smith joined about 100 people in a corner of Altria Theater’s ballroom Wednesday night at a community forum on homelessness organized by the city’s Department of Human Services. It brought together the homeless community, their advocates, and services providers in what some suggested would be the first of many conversations.
Richmond's homeless community, their advocates, Richmond Police officers and service providers gathered February 10 to discuss the impact of Monroe Park's temporary closure on those who use it for shelter. (Photo by Jackie Kruszewski)
The forum was billed as a broad conversation about homelessness, but focus turned often to Monroe Park, which acts as nexus for people in need and service providers like churches and nonprofits.
The park is set to close this spring for up to 18 months for a $6 million renovation project funded by the city and the nonprofit Monroe Park Conservancy.
A Society Without a Name (ASWAN), a community organizing group of the homeless and their advocates, wants services transferred to another public space while Monroe is closed, but no such space is being suggested by the city.
“Our hope is not that people will move from this park to another park,” says Debra D. Gardner, the city’s deputy chief administrative officer for human services. “Our hope is that we will get people connected into these nonprofit organizations and other faith-based groups to get the services they need.”
“A lot of the people [in Monroe Park] aren’t really homeless people,” she notes. “We’re really wanting to help the homeless people, not just the people who congregate to get free stuff.”
Some neighbors and organizations echo a desire for changes to park gatherings. Joni Dray, who lives near the park, cited litter problems after the feedings. “If I have a picnic, I don’t leave my trash,” she says.
Ginger Evans works at Second Presbyterian Church, where the kitchen prepares meals for the hungry. She says she is concerned about food safety of meals served at the park. “We don’t think the park is the best place for a meal.”
“It seems as though, with the actions of the few, we all get punished,” says Rebecca Farunberger, who frequently uses the services in the park. “I’d like to see people clean up after themselves, and people dealing with the homeless be a little more sensitive.”
The forum also touched on the quality of services provided around the city.
A man who gave his name as W.B. Scout Leader Bat brought up the recent passing of Irving “Peanut” Ward, who was found frozen to death downtown in January, to criticize the city’s cold weather overflow shelter on North Ninth Street. “Peanut died because he refused to go to the shelter because of the deplorable conditions.”
Open when temperatures drop below 40 degrees, the space requires referral from another full shelter before the 9 pm curfew. Bat calls it “a man-made purgatory” with lights on all night, minimal bedding, and the supervision of armed guards.
The Salvation Army’s recent decision to end daily walk-in food service at its downtown shelter was also a cause for concern.
A panel of nonprofit organizations – as well as Richmond Police’s Homeless Outreach team – acknowledged gaps in shelter and food service and pledged to integrate and cross-promote their network.
“The next step is to hold another forum where we try to nail down what are some stop-gap solutions and next steps,” Gardner says.
Jess Izen of ASWAN hopes the next conversations will be better advertised. “We expressed an interest in helping get the word out to the community,” she says. “But it was crickets until a week ago. People who use the park deserve a say in it.”
Asked where she’ll spend time during closure, Farunberger shrugs. “Linear Park in Oregon Hill is nice. I don’t know.”