RICHMOND, Va. — Since Monroe Park reopened in Richmond three months ago, much of the city’s homeless community that once frequented the park has not returned. While VCU students enjoy the redesigned park, aid organizations said the homeless have been scattered across the city.
Thomas Alleman, the chief facilitator for Richmond’s Food Not Bombs chapter, has been disappointed by the changes.
He and his organization serves weekly meals to Richmond’s homeless and food insecure community. That food service used to take place at Monroe Park.
“They cut down a lot of mature trees that were of this great size, but they also had a lot of purpose,” Alleman said. “They cut down trees that we used to use as cover, and they were just nice to see, and they’re gone. It’s disappointing the way they put the pathways and lack of benches. I think they’re doing it on purpose — to kind of keep people out and not make this place as welcoming as it used to be.”
A single park bench is located at one of the entrances to the park — and there are only three benches throughout. The remainder of the seating is composed of patio-style tables and chairs concentrated near the large fountain at the center of the park, next to a VCU police station.
A sign near the central fountain states the park is under video surveillance.
VCU senior Emmeline Cheung said she has seen a major change in the park’s demographics.
“[There are] definitely a lot less homeless people,” she said. “I noticed that students did not want to cross [Monroe Park] because of the homeless people before the construction began. But now, it’s all students in the park.”
Many students like Cheung have taken advantage of the park’s new atmosphere. Jasmyn Carter, a VCU transfer student, noticed more seating availability since the park’s opening.
“I was not really accustomed to see all the homeless people,” Carter said. “But I do feel like there are less homeless people walking through. I really like it at [Monroe Park]. There is definitely a lot more seating available.”
Both students said they had not realized there are only three park benches.
Andrew Hinkle, another VCU senior, said he is simply happy the park is reopened.
“I definitely think it is nicer. I am honestly just happy the construction is done,” Hinkle said.
The park was closed for almost two years before it reopened in September.
Alice Massie, president of the Monroe Park Conservancy, has a 30-year lease agreement on managing and maintaining the park. With the help of partnerships like VCU, Massie said the conservancy does not want to exclude anyone from coming and enjoying the park.
“It’s [Monroe Park] for anybody,” she said. “We have an agreement with VCU on physical plant maintenance. You’ve got groundskeepers every day picking up trash and maintaining the park.”
When asked how the homeless population has been managed, she responded that they still have feedings every Saturday and Sunday. Organizations just need to schedule a specific time.
“People would rather see them not serve food out in the cold. It’s one thing on a nice spring or fall day, but when it gets wet and cold, people should be serving food inside,” she said.
Corey Byers, the Public Information Officer for the VCU Police Department, said VCU Police have concurrent jurisdiction with Richmond Police for park law enforcement.
“VCU Police patrol both campuses 24/7 and this includes the park,” Byers said. “The park is technically closed from sun-down to sun-up, but pedestrians can cross it at night.”
VCU Police currently have limited jurisdiction in the city, while Richmond Police have jurisdiction throughout.
“Monroe Park is a public space, however, anyone who is found in the park at night (including VCU-affiliated persons) would be asked to leave if they aren’t actively traveling through it,” she said.
Food Not Bombs now serves food to in-need individuals at 4 p.m. every Sunday at Abner Clay Park between West Leigh and West Clay streets in Jackson Ward. The organization moved there when Monroe Park’s reconstruction began and will remain for the time being. But Alleman does not see nearly the number of people he used to see when they served food at Monroe Park.
“The whole community is still really scattered. I don’t know where a lot of these people have gone,” Alleman said. “I’ve tried to track a lot of them down, but it’s very difficult.”
Alleman also said individuals, churches, and private organizations can only do so much. He thinks the city of Richmond can and should do more for its homeless community.
“There’s no cold weather shelter; there’s no real women’s shelter in the city,” he said. “They’re trying to build one, but it isn’t by the city — it’s by private organizations. Virginia Beach spent $29 million building a homeless shelter. It houses over 200 people. They’ve been proactive in taking care of a problem that has been around for decades.”
Michael Rogers, with Homeward VA, said that statement was not true.
“There is in fact both a cold weather shelter and several shelters for women in the city limits,” he said. “The Cold Weather Shelter/Overflow shelter is a city-owned, nonprofit managed emergency shelter that is open on any evening when the temperature is forecasted to be 40F or below. The shelter is located at the Conrad Center at 1400 Oliver Hill Way in Richmond.
“CARITAS, Salvation Army, and HomeAgain, all operate emergency shelters that are exclusively for single women inside the city limits.
“Daily Planet Health Services operates their Safe Haven and Medical Respite programs that women experiencing homelessness can access. There are also several domestic violence shelters.
“Housing Families First is in eastern Henrico. As the name implies this is a family shelter, but women are among the residents.”
By Deanna Davison and Kevin Sontag (Special to WTVR.com)
EDITOR’S NOTE: WTVR.com has partnered with the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project at VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students from the project reported this story.