HOLMBERG: Disappearance of longtime Richmond homeless camps

Posted at 12:20 AM, Dec 27, 2012
and last updated 2012-12-27 00:20:38-05

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR)--Last month, Governor Bob McDonnell’s administration announced that there has been an eight percent drop in homelessness in Virginia during the past two years; seven percent for veterans and11 percent for families.

And a whopping 36 percent drop in the number of people chronically homeless.

Since then, we’ve been steadily checking longtime homeless camps to see if the numbers seem realistic.

We found camp after camp empty, even ones traditionally active year around.


The longtime camp just north of the Richmond Ambulance Authority headquarters on Hermitage Road has been empty for so long, it’s grown over to the point you can barely tell what was there. But for the better part of 30 years, it was a key campsite, complete with scrap-wood “homes” that housed up to 10 or more people at any given time. The crew there was famous for its soups and stews.

Both ends of the Boulevard Bridge over the main train switching yard by the bus station have been empty lately, a rarity for two of the spots where numerous homesteaders lived.

Two longtime spots in the woods by the train tracks in western Scott’s Addition are also empty and grown over. One of the squatters there died, I’m told.

 “The barrels,” two deep, concrete drainage tunnels under the tracks by the James River about a half mile upriver from Hollywood Cemetery also appear to be vacant. This was a notoriously rough spot - where someone chopped off the head of homeless schizophrenic Ed Northington in 1999. There crime was never solved.

Under the Lee Bridge downtown was also a spot frequented by the chronically homeless. It’s where Patsy Mitchell was bludgeoned to death in 1996. Now it’s part of the walking trail system – no room for squatters there.

Many  long-abandoned factories haunted by the homeless – such as the old Richmond Cold Storage building where my homeless friend John Mahoney died  - have been rehabbed into apartments and condos.

Even the longtime wooden squatter’s shack on the vacant lot next door to the old Cold Storage building sits empty.

We finally found one active camp, under a downtown bridge, but with half as many living there as when I last visited it just a year ago.

“They’re finally trying to get everybody up out of here,” said Tiffany Revels, who said she was an Army veteran who served in the Middle East. “And it’s been a blessing.”

Her companion, Ronald Landon of Georgia, said there are much better services for the homeless in Richmond.  “I love Virginia, ever since I’ve been here. There’s nothing better in this world.”

 Revels said she came to Richmond to get help from the Veterans Administration here. “The North Carolina V.A. didn’t want to help anybody. Had to come flat to Virginia and I literally walked here to . . . get help.”

She agreed that the services have improved for the homeless here. “A little bit. But not nearly enough.” She says she has been robbed and beaten here.

Like me, they suspect most of those holding “Homeless, please help” signs standing or sitting on area corners aren’t really homeless. If they are, they’re doing a fine job of hiding.

 Yes, there are a few folks living under bridges here and there, but nothing like there were 10, 20 years ago.

So what’s changed?

Back when there were numerous groups fighting for grant money to help the homeless, there was a politically correct view that most of those needing help just needed jobs and low-income housing, that “everyone is just two paychecks away from being homeless.”

Now, more and more service providers -  such as the Healing Place, among many others – are focusing on the roots causes of chronic homelessness: substance abuse and mental illness.

Also, in my view, there are far fewer places for squatters to hide because the overall health and use of the city and it’s parks. The James River parks system, once heavy with remote homeless camps. Is just too busy for Huck Finn living.

And finally, many of the longtime chronically homeless have either died or have been institutionalized. For example, “Pops” – AKA “Boxcar” – was homeless for years. Now he’s in a group home on Grace Street.

I just haven’t seen very many younger folks out in the weather.

It can be a tough job living on the streets. The solution has never been making it easier to survive the homeless lifestyle with endless meals, clothes and temporary shelter, but by making it easier to come out of the lonely cold. I hope that’s what’s happening.

That’s my take, please post yours here.