Belongings stuffed in trash bags and empty tents marked the final day of Camp Cathy, the Shockoe Valley encampment that was home to more than 100 of the region’s most vulnerable residents at its height.
A team of nonprofits led an emergency push to empty the encampment this week, citing the danger the COVID-19 pandemic poses to the homeless.
That push ended Thursday, after 80 people accepted a two-week hotel stay or emergency shelter placement to leave. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration said access to the site on Oliver Hill Way, near the city-owned Giles Center, would be restricted so no one could return.
What Stoney and other officials heralded as a life-saving effort struck some at the camp as a forced migration.
As they prepared to leave, many expressed uncertainty, frustration and suspicion.
Among them was Jeff Pierce, a 61-year-old man with a disability who makes money snagging odd jobs outside of Lowe’s on West Broad Street.
Pierce and others sat on the curb as outreach workers in protective masks and gloves coordinated rides for them. Many said they weren’t told where they were going, only that they needed to gather all their possessions and wait. Richmond Police stood watch.
“Two weeks ain’t gonna do me no good; ain’t gonna nobody no good,” Pierce said. He wanted to move into subsidized housing, not go back to the shelter system. With nowhere else to go, he and others took the offer without a guarantee from the city of permanent shelter once the two-week stay ends.
City staff and the nonprofits “will monitor the situation and extend the period if the health and safety of those individuals require it,” according to a release Stoney issued Thursday morning.
“The effort will now focus on connecting those same individuals to permanent housing units and services like employment opportunities and healthcare.”
The promises did not persuade those who believed the city mishandled the situation.
“I am disgusted,” said Bessie Fentress, an elderly woman who lived in a tent at the camp with her adult daughter for months. Earlier this week, a city-affiliated agency helped get her into an apartment.
The night before, a city truck trashed tents that people had moved out of. The sight scared those still living in the camp, according to Blessing Warriors RVA, the group that started the community last November. The group said they were not warned. A city release disputed that Thursday.
Rhonda Sneed, the group’s co-founder, is a beloved figure among those who lived in the tents. She has clashed with city and nonprofit officials as plans took shape to take the tents down without a guarantee of permanent shelter.
“I just want to make sure these people are off the street,” Sneed said.
She requested a list of all who were moved from the camp and their location so her organization could continue supporting them. The nonprofits moving people out wouldn’t provide it because of client confidentiality, she said.
The city-backed push this week changed plans laid out pre-pandemic to move people out of the tents and fence off the Virginia Commonwealth University-owned property by month’s end.
Some believed the city simply seized on the virus as an excuse to take the tents down.
“They’ve been against the camp the whole time,” said Dave Henderson, who had slept in his car at the site for months before moving into an apartment last week. “Everybody is healthy. Nobody is sick. This is open air.”
Inadequate sanitation and inability to self-isolate make the encampment unsafe amid the pandemic, said Dr. Patricia Cook, chief medical officer of the Daily Planet Health Services.
“It would be very difficult to socially distance and perform the cleaning and hand hygiene that we really need in the encampment setting,” Cook said.
Cook has led efforts to institute new health screening for the homeless locally to catch potential cases before they get into the confines of a shelter.
She and her staff had tested five people by mid-day Thursday, she said. All tests are either pending or have come back negative, she said.
Kelly King Horne, executive director of Homeward, worked closely with the Stoney administration to move people out of the tents.
She credited the city for pledging money for the hotel stays, a step others around the country have taken in response to the pandemic. She said she didn’t know how much the rooms would ultimately cost.
“This saved lives,” she said. “We’ll probably never know how many.”