The cot Ahmed Ibrahim had slept on outside of the Richmond Coliseum was deemed trash and discarded by a city work crew Wednesday.
Ibrahim, 31, has bounced from streets to hotel rooms to shelters in Richmond since losing housing in October. He felt his belongings were safe as he slept outside of the shuttered arena downtown until Department of Public Works employees came to clean up and swept up bedding and belongings in the process.
“I was gone for a little bit to use the restroom and when I came back all my stuff that was here was gone,” Ibrahim said of the encounter, which witnesses said Thursday occurred without warning. City officials disputed those accounts.
A city administration that has pledged to build trust with, and improve services for, the region’s most vulnerable population defended its handling of the situation. Advocates and those directly affected said it was an affront.
“Why? All I want to know is why,” said Rhonda Sneed, of Blessing Warriors RVA, a nonprofit that gives food and other supplies to people experiencing homelessness. “It’s absolutely ridiculous. Those were brand-new cots that we just gave them. So they would rather see someone sleeping on the ground?”
The cleanup unfolded on a day when first lady Jill Biden was touring the Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center a few blocks away. A widely shared post circulating on social media late Wednesday drew a link between Biden’s visit and what happened at the Coliseum.
Ibrahim and Sneed said they believed the timing wasn’t a coincidence.
Jim Nolan, a spokesman for Mayor Levar Stoney, said that assertion was “a social media conspiracy theory and could not be further from the truth.”
Outreach workers told those sleeping in the area that a cleanup was planned due to trash and unsanitary conditions around the city-owned building, Nolan said. Outreach workers told people to take items they wanted and that any left behind would be thrown away, he added.
City officials said roughly 10 people had been sleeping in the area. Two were allowed to keep their belongings in place after they said they did not want to leave, the officials said. No citations were issued.
On Thursday morning, at least six people — some sleeping on the ground — remained at the site.
“The City of Richmond has a duty to ensure a clean and sanitary city. Moreover, we are responsible for the maintenance of public property, like the Coliseum. After receiving numerous complaints regarding abandoned bags of items and the smell of urine, [Public Works] scheduled time to address the issue,” Nolan stated in an email in response to questions about the situation.
Sneed compared what happened Wednesday to the city’s clearing of the tent encampment her organization helped start in 2019 outside of the city’s former cold weather overflow shelter in Shockoe Valley. The encampment aided dozens of people who were experiencing homelessness before the city and its nonprofit partners moved those staying there into hotels at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Public Works crews discarded the tents and all that was left behind.
In response to the public health crisis, the city has spent millions in federal CARES Act money and some local funds to shelter people in hotel rooms over the last year. Not everyone experiencing homelessness chooses to seek out shelter or other services that are available, either out of mistrust or for other personal reasons.
Ibrahim said he stayed in a room at a motel in South Richmond through an emergency program late last year. He had to share the room with another man and did not feel safe there, so he eventually left, opting instead to weather some of the coldest nights of the year on the streets.
Likewise, he said he was uncomfortable at the city’s safety net shelter, a congregate space in a hotel ballroom that opens during inclement weather or when temperatures drop below 40 degrees.
The pandemic has spurred the largest single-year spike in homelessness in the city since the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care began tracking the figure in the 1990s. Between January 2020 and January 2021, the number of people experiencing homelessness rose from 549 to 838, about a 53% increase, according to preliminary figures released this month.
Despite the rise, the federally mandated count found the number of people who are sleeping outdoors decreased, from 130 to just under 100, according to the figures provided by Homeward, the region’s coordinating agency for homeless services.
A task force Stoney convened to study the region’s homeless services system and come up with improvements is expected to release its recommendations before the end of the month.