Heavy rain overnight Thursday and high winds Friday damaged tents, soaked belongings and left the homeless living at an encampment in Shockoe Valley picking up the pieces.
Several tents partially collapsed, leaving the people huddled inside, their bedding and other possessions unsheltered from the downpour. Ankle-deep puddles formed on the rain-soaked plot where the 91 tents are clustered. Many flooded.
“It was a mess out here,” said Rhonda Sneed, a volunteer who has led outreach efforts with her faith-based charitable group Blessing Warriors RVA. First responders took five people from the site to the hospital, Sneed said.
With conditions deteriorating and rain forecast through the night Thursday, Sneed said she had pleaded with an adviser to Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney to open the city-owned emergency shelter next to the encampment on Oliver Hill Way. The shelter was not scheduled to open because temperatures were not forecast to drop to 40 degrees or lower, a bar set by City Council ordinance.
Not long after, Sneed said, staff members came and unlocked the doors.
Reggie Gordon, the city’s deputy chief administrative officer for human services, said a state of emergency Gov. Ralph Northam declared for flooding prompted the decision to open the shelter. The encampment is located in a flood plain.
About 40 people went into the shelter overnight, Gordon said. Dozens of others stayed in their tents. To Gordon, that demonstrated the complexity of the situation.
“I think this is a more complicated issue than just coming inside,” Gordon said. “Even on a night like last night, we were open to come in from the rain and a lot of people didn’t do that.”
Some people who slept in the tents overnight said they didn’t want to leave and risk getting wet. The shelter did not open until about 9 p.m.
“By that point, it kind of defeated the purpose,” said Bessie Fentress, a 68-year-old homeless woman who lives at the encampment. She said she stayed dry in her tent.
Sneed and other volunteers cleaning up the site Friday said they were barred from bringing dry clothes to drenched people who chose to go inside. That frustrated Sneed, but she said she was thankful the city opened the doors. The night before brought rain and even colder temperatures; the shelter remained locked.
Asked why, Gordon cited the council ordinance governing shelter use that he said tied the administration’s hands. He deferred questions to the council about whether the ordinance should be amended. Councilwoman Ellen Robertson, who represents the area, did not return a call on the matter Friday.
Robertson convened a meeting at the shelter on Wednesday that grew emotional. She and other city officials wanted to discuss a strategic plan aimed at ending homelessness by 2030. The people living in the tents and advocates for the homeless demanded immediate assurances the encampment would not be removed without first providing shelter for all who are living there.
The city asked Sneed to take the tents down at the end of December. No trespassing signs bearing city insignia were posted at the encampment last month.
City officials and Virginia Commonwealth University, which owns the property the encampment is on, privately discussed clearing out the encampment. They have since changed course, saying they will work to connect the people living in the tents with existing services and shelter.
The region’s homeless population grew this year for the first time since 2011, according to a biannual census conducted last month. The number of people who are sleeping in shelter beds or outside rose from 497 last year to 549, a 10% jump.
People who sleep outdoors have historically been scattered through the region. The encampment, dubbed Camp Cathy, has brought many of them onto a single plot, laying bare the scope of the problem.
On Friday morning, Sneed sifted through tents, determining what clothes and bedding needed washing. Other volunteers distributed socks, underwear and clothes.
Nearby, Kevin White sorted through his remaining possessions, tossing some that he said were either too worn, or too soiled from water that seeped in during the storm.
He did not go into the shelter Thursday night, nor does he intend to, regardless of the weather. A Marine, the 47-year-old said he can survive anything.
“I’ll wrap up in two trash bags and I’ll be OK,” he said. “For the ones that need [the shelter], let them have it. Sleeping on a quarter-inch mat under an aluminum foil blanket is not my idea of comfort when you’re trying to give a homeless person somewhere to sleep.”
White became homeless in November after losing his job. Since then, he said, he has tried to stay positive and trust that God put him at the encampment for a reason.
He said he had to be at work in two hours. Fortunately, he said, his boss agreed to help him with his laundry.