The Renovation of Monroe Park

Posted on September 21, 2010

Are we really doing a disservice to people who are experiencing homelessness by renovating the park or are we making it a nice place for everyone to visit and use?

If you’ve walked through Monroe Park lately, I think you would agree with me that it is in sad shape and in bad need of a facelift.  After having walked through or by the park numerous times in the last few years, I’m ready for this makeover.  I now have a granddaughter who started her freshman year at VCU and I’ve told her to stay away from the park, especially at night.  Deteriorating and poorly lit places breed crime.

It seems to me the issue isn’t about whether the renovations should happen but whether the renovations will discourage people who are homeless from using the park and in some cases sleeping in the park.  Once the park is renovated, it should be a great place for anyone, regardless of their housing situation.  And, call me crazy, but I don’t think a park bench is a safe place for anyone to sleep.  People who are experiencing homelessness should be inside if at all possible – in housing, preferably permanent housing – but if this is not available, in an emergency shelter.  We have 1000 emergency and transitional beds in this community and we have The Healing Place for folks with substance abuse issues.

Currently there is also a lot of concern over the weekend happenings in the park, where many well-meaning people from various congregations and groups come to provide food, clothes and bedding to those in need.  This is not an organized effort (i.e., no one is in charge) and I have heard complaints that oftentimes trash and stuff that is not picked up by folks is simply left for the City to pick up.

So, is this the best way to feed people on the weekends?  For those of you who don’t know, Freedom House serves a meal on Saturdays at 3:30 and a brunch on Sundays until 2pm.  They will also give bag lunches on Sundays to folks who need them.  The meals are served at the Conrad Center, which is at 17th and O Street.  Meals are also served there during the week in the morning and evenings.  Lunches are served every day by the downtown churches.  So why do people feel compelled to bring food and other things to the folks who are experiencing homelessness who gather in Monroe Park? 

Are we as a community doing this because the folks who gather there need food, clothes or bedding? Or are we doing it because we need to feel like we are doing something to help?

I don’t mean to disparage anyone who has helped people experiencing homelessness in Monroe Park, but I know that Freedom House could use more volunteers to help serve meals. To find out more about opportunities with Freedom House, please contact Christy Ellis, Community Resource Director at 233-4064, est. 209.  VSH also has plenty of opportunities available and would welcome individual and group volunteers who have a passion for helping people in need.

We’ve worked very hard in this community to develop a system of helping people in crisis and I think it works fairly well most of the time.  It is accessible and treats people with respect and dignity.  I don’t think we need to continue to use the park as a place to sleep or as a feeding program on the weekends.  I think it should be a beautiful place where my granddaughter and anyone, including people who are experiencing homelessness, can enjoy all of the time.

Stability Is A Precious Thing In Life

Posted on August 17, 2010

I have asked Cristina Wood, one of VSH’s fall communications internship candidates, to write this week’s blog on her experiences volunteering at a homeless shelter in Northern Virginia.

I walked in the front door of the shelter like I had been doing every Thursday for the past several months. After waving to Celeste at the front desk, I proceeded upstairs to find the usual children playing with toys or being read to by other volunteers. I scanned the room for Ashley’s big eyes and long brown hair, and listened for her infectious laugh, but she was nowhere to be found. Peeking into the room next door where the children’s mothers were savoring their time to themselves, I was surprised not to be greeted with a mouthful of Spanish from Ashley’s mom that I could never understand, but always appreciated.

I walked back downstairs to Celeste. “Where’s Ashley?” I asked. “Oh, didn’t anyone tell you?” Celeste said with a confused look. “Ashley and her mother have been relocated.” I stared at Celeste speechless for a moment before questions began falling from my mouth. “Relocated? Why? She was here last week! Where is she?” “We can’t give that information out,” Celeste said and instructed me to go back upstairs to help the other children.

Since I began tutoring at this shelter, I had been assigned to Ashley and was able to witness her progress every week. Her English was getting better and her grades in school were improving dramatically. I looked forward to seeing her every week and helping her with her English and math homework. Her mother assured me Ashley loved my visits as well, but suddenly they were both gone forever.

It was then that I began to realize how strenuous it is to live in temporary shelter, where the only constant in your life is change. Ashley was only in second grade, and her mother spoke no English. I was devastated that Ashley had left and I wasn’t even the one that had to deal with the hardships of moving, possibly changing schools, and getting accustomed to a whole new environment. I could only imagine how difficult it was for Ashley and her mom.

Stability is a precious thing in life. Knowing that you have a home, family, or friends to keep you grounded is invaluable and should never be taken for granted. Providing people who are experiencing homelessness with a permanent place to live allows them to work towards getting their lives back on track without worrying where they will sleep next week. It is truly a wonderful thing and this sense of stability has been proven hugely successful through the efforts of Virginia Supportive Housing. I never saw Ashley again, but I hope that she is safe and, if she hasn’t already, that she will find a permanent home which can provide the foundation for her to build the rest of her life.

A Safe Home is Heaven

Posted on April 27, 2010

Born and raised in Richmond, Va., Anna Ray began her adult life as a waitress, single mother of three and victim of an abusive relationship. Overwhelmed by work and physical abuse, Anna lost custody of her children.

“I lost my mind and my income” Anna said.

Without any income, Anna was quickly forced to live on the streets. She slept at bus stops, abandoned buildings, balconies and friends’ houses. Anna recalls feeling very vulnerable as a woman.

Abusive relationships and gang rapes are just two of the many traumatic events Anna Ray* endured during her life on the streets.

Although it’s very difficult for her to talk about it, she goes into detail about how she was forced to trade sex for shelter. Anna recalls one instance when she slept with a man for shelter. That particular night he returned with a group of his friends who proceeded to take turns raping her.

During the days, Anna did temp work to get money for food. She said she would beg for food when she had to but never money as she feels it’s degrading.

Anna tried to get back on her feet financially by staying at a local shelter but said it was difficult to get temp work that was compatible with their (the shelter’s) rules and schedule.

She finally found hope when she spoke with a friend who was staying at New Clay House. Ready to do anything to get off of the streets, Anna contacted VSH immediately.

“VSH gave me a chance when no one else would,” said Anna.

Anna moved into New Clay House (NCH) soon after she contacted VSH. She said NCH finally gave her a place to go home to, a place that is hers and most of all, a place where she feels safe.

Anna feels like she now has the support she needs to lead a fulfilling life. Staff are there for emotional support and to help her obtain needed medications.

When asked what others should know about people experiencing homelessness Anna replied, “If you see a homeless person, help them out. Buy them food or at least treat them like they are human; smile and say ‘Hi’.”

*Name has been changed to protect program participant’s identity.

After a Lifetime of Turmoil, Home is Found

Posted on March 23, 2010

The sun shines down in rays through the blinds on her living room window as Linda Billings*,58, sits on her couch, hands clasped and resting in her lap.

With wide eyes, she begins to talk about how she experienced homelessness for the first time in her life in the fall of 2009.

“If you would have asked me 30 years ago I would have told you, ‘Nah, no way, not me,’”  Billings says about whether or not she thought she‘d ever experience homelessness.

The oldest of her siblings, Billings has always been independent and a hard worker. At the age of 12, she began working at a diner where her mother was employed and says she has been “hooked” on making money ever since.

Billings married when she was 19 years old.

“My ex-husband was what they (some people) call an overnight drunk,” Billings says , “I worked 2 or 3 jobs at a time to support our family.”

Despite his alcoholism and eventual physical and emotional abuse, Billings remained married to her first husband for 12 years. She finally was able to break away from her tumultuous relationship and buy her own house.

“I’d have probably given up … I don’t know where I would have ended up if it hadn’t been for my children,” a misty-eyed Billings says, “They helped me.”

It wasn’t long before another man battling addiction would cause turmoil in her life; this time it was her own son.

Billings’ son would come to her every time he needed money. He would claim that if he did not pay, drug dealers would come after him and then his family, including Billings herself.

“In the beginning, sometimes I’d believe those stories,” Billings says, “Drug dealers will come after you.”

After losing vehicles and her second home because of her son’s addiction, Billings was told by doctors that she could no longer work because of health complications caused by varicose veins.

Unable to work, Billings was left with no place of her own to call home.

Her independent ways are what Billings says allowed her to never give up. Through the local shelters, she heard about Virginia Supportive Housing and contacted them immediately.

Billings had her eye set on a certain apartment building where she wanted to live.  In just a couple of weeks, through the HPRP program at VSH, she was able to obtain her own apartment in that very building.

As Billings sits in her freshly vacuumed, candle-scented apartment, she explains how she is working on getting her GED.

“Virginia Supportive Housing has helped in so many ways. For one thing, knowing that they were there and willing to support me and help me get to where I am,”  Billings says, “ I am so blessed and thankful to have them (VSH) in my life.”

*Name was changed to protect program participant’s privacy.

Story of Hope – Sick and Tired No More!

Posted on February 23, 2010

At the age of 23, Lisa Spencer* found herself with no place to go, walking the streets of Richmond in search of shelter.

Spencer was experiencing homelessness as a mother of four, with her fifth child on the way. Along with her children, Spencer was caring for her teenage brother and sister as their mother’s passing had left them all on the streets.

“You could say that all the homelessness really came from my mom passing away,” said Spencer, “It was like, see my brother and sister homeless or take them in.”

As many local shelters are unable to keep families with male teenagers intact, Spencer was on a never-ending mission to find a place for her children and her brother to sleep.

“It’s hard trying to knock on somebody’s door and say ‘Can we stay with you tonight’ with 4 kids, let alone a 16 year old,” said Spencer, “That was like the biggest struggle … I would rather sleep outside with my children then to see my brother outside alone.”

After two years of moving from shelter to shelter, Spencer finally got a break. Her older sister allowed her and her five children to come and stay at her home in Florida. Spencer’s two teenage siblings were able to find homes in Richmond and care for themselves.

Spencer seized the opportunity to move to Florida with her sister and rebuild her life. That opportunity turned out to be short-lived. At 26, Lisa Spencer was diagnosed with Stage 2 cervical cancer.

“That just brought me back down to zero. Anything I ever had hoped for … just flashed before me and I thought ‘oh, I’m about to die’,” said Spencer, “My mom and my father both died from cancer, so I was really scared.”

In hopes of receiving treatment at VCU Medical Center, Spencer returned to Richmond with her children. She found temporary housing with a friend and was able to get her children back into the public school system. Spencer heard about Virginia Supportive Housing (VSH) from a guidance counselor at her children’s’ school and contacted VSH immediately.

VSH was able to assist Spencer using the new Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing (HPRP) funds awarded through the stimulus package. HRPR funds paid the family’s security deposit, utility deposits, and helped with a rental subsidy for the first three months. Housing staff evaluated her situation and helped her figure out the best location for her family to live and a landlord who would rent to her despite her recent rental history.  Additionally, housing staff worked with the school systems to allow her children to remain in their home school (Henrico County) through the end of the school year.

Spencer completed her final cancer treatment two weeks before Christmas 2009.

Although Spencer and her children have a rough road ahead of them, it has been made easier by the presence of safe, affordable housing. The family will be reevaluated for HPRP eligibility and need every three months, and may receive a subsidy for an additional 15 months. This will give her enough time to heal and secure employment to sustain her housing once the subsidy ends.

“I can’t thank the staff at Virginia Supportive Housing enough,” said Spencer, “… the kids come home from school and they come in the door and say ‘Mom we’re home’.”


*Name was changed to protect program participant’s privacy.

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