City staff, advocates clash over how it happened.
RICHMOND – It was 10 a.m. Wednesday and most of the houseless folks living around the Richmond Coliseum went together to get breakfast and to find a bathroom. When they returned minutes later, all their belongings were being destroyed by an enormous crane.
“They didn’t give no one any warning. They just scooped everything up and went away,” said David Gillilliand, a houseless person who was sleeping at the Coliseum that morning. “Some of that stuff was still good. It wasn’t trash to throw away.”
City Claims Houseless Aided in Demolition
The city of Richmond’s Department of Public Works is responsible for this, according to witnesses including Gillilliand. Department officials, with an escort from the Richmond Police Department, would not give the houseless people whose homes they were destroying a reason for this removal.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s press secretary, Jim Notal, denied in a statement to Dogwood that the city removed people’s belongings without their permission. He claimed that houseless individuals assisted the Department of Public Works in putting their own belongings in the department’s truck for removal.
“DPW staff worked with individuals to ensure they had ample opportunity to collect and/or remove their belongings. Some individuals even assisted DPW staff to clean the area and put items on the back of pick-up trucks for removal,” Nolan said.
None of the houseless people Dogwood interviewed agree with this version of events. They said their belonging were taken forcibly, and that only people who physically laid on their belongings were able to keep them.
“I don’t see why they were messing with us,” said Michael Anderson, who was able to keep his cot and blankets because he would not move despite orders from the department and police. “When you take somebody’s stuff, they have nothing.”
City Cites Complaints, But Activists Say They Refused to Help
Nolan also said the city removed the belongings in response to complaints about the cleanliness of the area.
“We responded after receiving numerous complaints regarding abandoned bags of items and the smell of urine, and did so in a cooperative and respectful manner,” Nolan said.
However, advocates say that problem would have been solved weeks ago if the city had done its job.
Following the snow and ice storms last month, local volunteer group Blessing Warriors decided to replace all the cots and blankets of the houseless people. They also cleaned up the Coliseum, bagging up trash which they lined up on the curb. That’s when the city could have stepped in, but didn’t, according to activists.
“There was a donation given to Blessing Warriors to put people into hotels. And so we put those guys in the hotels when the snowstorm came,” said Blessing Warriors volunteer Svondai Brown. “We cleaned up the whole area, replaced everything for them so that when they came back, they would have dry covers and dry sleeping bags and everything. And the city never came and picked up the trash that we put up on the curb. But then just the other day they came, took the trash from the curb, and they took the new cots that several people had donated to Blessing Warriors. Brand new cots.”
The First Lady’s Visit
Organizers who support the houseless community in Richmond point out that the encampment’s destruction came a day before First Lady Jill Biden visited the downtown area.
“The President’s wife showed up yesterday downtown, so [they] made it look pretty. That’s just an assumption on our behalf,” said Traci Byrd-Eagles, volunteer with the Blessing Warriors.
Nolan denies there is a connection between the First Lady’s visit to the city and the destruction of this encampment of houseless people.
“The accusation regarding the timing of our interaction with regard to the First Lady’s visit is pure conspiracy theory that couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Nolan said.
The Blessing Warriors Supports Richmond’s Houseless Community
The Blessing Warriors are a volunteer community care organization that provides food and supplies to the houseless community of Richmond. They serve hot meals to houseless people in the city every night, which they finance solely through donations.
On Wednesday, Richmond city officials pushed 11 houseless people out of the area around the Coliseum. In addition to losing all their belongings, they also lost their home and safe space. That’s according to Ahmed Ibrahim, one of the houseless people police pushed out of the Coliseum.
“Home? Yeah. Most of the time I stayed here,” Ibrahim said. “I would say it’s a safe environment. Right now, not a lot of people are staying here because of what happened on Wednesday. But before that, there were more people.”
The items that the Department of Public Works confiscated include several newly-donated cots, sleeping bags, and blankets. But most importantly, they include the essential documents of some houseless folks.
“All their belongings, their IDs that we’ve worked so hard for them to get, their birth certificates. The things they need to get jobs, to be able to get services, mental health benefits. It starts the process all over. And it recreates the trauma for those who may be on the street, because they already experienced traumatic issues. And now the city is retraumatizing them instead of getting them the services that they need,” said Byrd-Eagles. “It’s going to take months and months and months. Especially with DMV and having only appointments and so on… And the reality is, with the mental health challenges, a lot of them are not going to do it. So then they have no chance at a job, no chance at mental health benefits, because they give up or they die.”
The Destruction of Camp Cathy
A crane scooping up and destroying their homes is a familiar and retraumatizing sight for houseless people in the area. That’s because the same thing happened last year, when the city destroyed Camp Cathy.
Camp Cathy was another, but much bigger and safer houseless encampment in Richmond. In March 2020, the city approved the demolition of that collection of tents too, leaving behind signs stating that the closure of the area was to protect against the spread of COVID-19.
“We had about a hundred tents then. They were an eyesore so they used COVID as their excuse to shut them down,” Byrd-Eagles said.
Five Houseless People Dead As A Result
At least five people are dead as a direct result of Camp Cathy’s closure, according to members of the Blessing Warriors.
Among those dead is a woman is Shirely, who advocates say died after her home was taken in the destruction of Camp Cathy. She passed away this winter.
“She was trying and she was actually working on getting off drugs. When they came and got people from Camp Cathy, she was at work,” said Rhonda Sneed, founder of Blessing Warriors. “So she went into the streets trying to find shelter after they took hers away. Until she just gave up and went full fledged into the drugs and died.”
Another former-resident of the camp, Andre, also died over the last few months.
“He ended up with gangrene from his diabetes. He had nowhere to sleep. They’d put him in a hotel, they’d kick him out. He was sleeping behind a dumpster with toes cut off to handle the gangreen,” said Sneed. “Till the day he died this man said ‘I need Camp Cathy again.’ He was out there and they didn’t care. So he died.”
Begging For Houseless Services From the City
Advocates say ever since the Richmond government destroyed Camp Cathy, things have gotten more dangerous for houseless people in Richmond. Until the day a crane rolled in to destroy it, advocates say the city took no action to intervene or even attempt to help the houseless people living at the Coliseum.
“They’ve been there for months. And social service is right around the corner. City Hall is right around the corner. No one came over to assist them at all, to find out what their needs are. They drive past that every single day and as long as we’ve been serving out there, we’ve helped them more than the city has. A social worker could have walked around to the Coliseum to do intake to try to find out how they can help those people. And they didn’t,” said Brown.
Without additional help from the city, these organizers say their efforts to help Richmond’s houseless population is ultimately futile.
“We can love them all we want. We can feed them all we want. But until they get the services they need, we’re in the same position,” said Byrd-Eagles.
They aren’t the only ones calling for change in Richmond’s response to its houselessness crisis. Last month, more than a hundred people petitioned the local government to reform its services to houseless people.