Cathy’s Camp to be shut down by March 31, displacing homeless

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 3/13/2020, 6 a.m.
Complete closure and removal. That’s what’s ahead for Cathy’s Camp, the tent community that sprang up in recent months adjacent …
Between 50 to 80 people still live in Cathy’s Camp, a tent city for the homeless that sprang up last August adjacent to city’s winter overflow shelter and across the street from the Richmond Justice Center on Oliver Hill Way. Local nonprofits have found housing for only about seven of the camp residents in the last two weeks. Photo by Regina H. Boone

Complete closure and removal.

That’s what’s ahead for Cathy’s Camp, the tent community that sprang up in recent months adjacent to the city’s winter overflow shelter and across the street from the Richmond Justice Center.

Despite failing to identify new resources or shelter space, a homeless task force of public and private service providers rolled out a plan to shut down the camp by the end of March.

The camp, which at one time housed more than 100 people, has become a visible symbol of the area’s affordable housing crisis that makes an outdoor field the only option for some.

The closure is aimed at forcing current camp residents — and newcomers who are visible space if they cannot be placed in a shelter or find housing elsewhere, as most cannot.

Nonprofits have found temporary or permanent space for only seven people at Cathy’s Camp in the past two weeks. That’s only a fraction of the 50 to 80 people currently staying there.

Expected to be to be finalized Friday, the plan already is being implemented, with notices posted on tents requesting that those living there be gone by Monday, March 30, and tents to come down Tuesday, March 31.

By Wednesday, April 1, Virginia Commonwealth University is expected to post one or more police officers at the site to prevent any new tents from being set up on the land, which is owned by the university and considered environmentally contaminated and listed as a brownfield.

It is not clear if people will be arrested if they refuse to leave the camp.

The decision to shut down the camp complies with the demands of 6th District City Councilwoman Ellen F. Robertson, who regards the camp as a blight on her district and wants other council members to find shelter space in their sections of the city.

The camp’s removal — along with dozens of residents who currently have no other place to go — would take place two weeks before the city officially ends the use of the Annie Giles Community Resource Center, the former Conrad Center, as the winter overflow shelter.

Mayor Levar M. Stoney’s administration has rebuffed a request from nonprofits in the task force to allow the camp to remain open until the Giles Center closes on Monday, April 15.

Ms. Robertson has criticized the city for opening the shelter at the Giles Center this season, preventing it from being used as a job training and resource center for residents who live in the communities overlooking the jail and city Juvenile Detention Center.

As a shelter, it has provided a bare survival space on frigid nights. People sleep on thin mats on the floor with the lights kept on in the women’s area. The lights and the noise make getting rest difficult, several people have said.

When the center is not open because the temperature isn’t forecast to dip below 40 degrees, people sleep on the sidewalk at the front door.

Still, there is a prospect for a federal lawsuit if Cathy’s Camp residents relocate to public property, such as the grassy area outside the city Social Services building.

A 2018 federal court ruling from Boise, Idaho, upheld in December by the U.S. Supreme Court, barred authorities in western states from arresting homeless people who sleep on public property if no alternative housing is provided.

The city’s top human services official, Reginald E. Gordon, signaled his goal of shutting down the camp in late December, when he ordered Blessing Warriors RVA to dismantle it. He did not enforce the order. But as a member of the task force, he now is making it clear that getting rid of the camp remains a top priority.

“I don’t know what will happen when the end of the month comes,” said Rhonda Sneed, the co-founder and volunteer leader of the 3,500-member Blessing Warriors RVA that started the camp last August after she found people sleeping in the field without blankets — and with no sign of city or private social workers to assist.

“I am in no way in support of taking the tents down,” said Ms. Sneed, “unless they have housing for everyone who is here now and all the new people who keep coming.”

While some people have left, “we still have people arriving. I can’t stop them. They just want a place to sleep,” said Ms. Sneed, a retired U.S. Postal Service employee and Air Force veteran who has fed the homeless for at least four years.

Blessing Warriors RVA has provided sleeping bags, blankets, food, clothing, rides to doctors’ appointments, laundry help and other aid to the residents to help them get through the cold.

Ms. Sneed said that includes a pregnant woman and people who have been discharged from hospitals and health care facilities. She noted the arrival Monday night of man on a walker who is still recovering from surgery. She also pointed to another person whom MCV discharged and had transported to the camp as the only option for a place to stay.

“We’re still working on the housing issue,” said Kelly King Horne, executive director of Homeward, a nonprofit that coordinates the regional public and private response to homelessness through the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care.

According to the city and Homeward, Richmond nonprofits house about 1,000 people, but still need 150 new shelter beds and a way to create 300 more units of transitional housing for longer-term stays, for which there is no funding.

The biggest problem, Ms. Horne said, is that there are no housing resources in the area for the most vulnerable, elderly poor people who are ill or disabled and need constant care. She and the partners in homeless services are at a loss as to how to house such individuals who cannot work and require the help of others.

Ms. Sneed and others call short-term shelter beds a Band-aid solution because, after a few days, the people are back on the street looking for somewhere to sleep.

Fifth District Councilwoman Stephanie A. Lynch, a former social worker who is now engaged in housing issues for people with mental illnesses, said Monday night more camps will be popping up around the city if the city doesn’t put up more resources for housing.

She noted there are few federal or state resources. One of the biggest pools of money, Medicaid, cannot be used for housing, she said.

Ms. Lynch said area hospitals could consider getting involved as several have done in Pittsburgh and other communities. The hospitals in those communities, she said, have found it is cheaper to move people into apartments and pay their rent than having them take up beds at the hospital because there is nowhere to discharge them.