Nearly a month after Occupy Richmond was expelled from Kanawha Plaza, the downtown park is as silent as it is empty on a chilly Wednesday night. There are no visitors, no protestors — and no sign of the homeless people who have congregated here for years.
Kanawha offers little in the way of comfort. But with spotty enforcement of the city’s anti-trespassing laws, it often served as a shelter of last resort for those unwilling or unable to take advantage of other housing resources. But now the number of homeless people staying in the park has plummeted, stirring up concern among some local homeless advocates about how the laws are being enforced.
“There seems to be a lot of mixed messages related to Occupy Richmond, the homeless and Kanawha Plaza,” says Karen Stanley, executive director of the Healing Place. There are dozens of housing shelters available, she says, including the city’s cold weather shelter. Still, for those who choose not to take up shelter, Stanley doesn’t see a major problem. “As long as people aren’t causing problems,” she says, “I don’t think there’s a big issue with homeless people staying in parks.”
There are as many as 772 homeless adults in the city, according to a July survey conducted by Homeward, a local homeless advocacy group. Among the city’s various homeless encampments, the one at Kanawha perhaps was the city’s largest, with as many as 50 people sleeping overnight inside the park on any given night, says Kelly King Horne, Homeward’s executive director. Several of them arrived at Homeward looking for shelter following the city’s Oct. 31 raid at the downtown plaza. “Kanawha was never a great option,” Horne says, “but now it seems to be off the table.”
The number of homeless people staying inside the park has decreased significantly in the last few months, Richmond Police Maj. Steve Drew says. The department has a special unit, Homeless Outreach Partnerships and Enforcement, to assist and connect homeless people with various service providers. “Kanawha is a place that we’ve put emphasis on,” Drew says, “and now if you go out there you might see just a handful.”
There are other factors at play. After a balmy fall, the weather has turned colder, and the homeless who frequent the park may have found other housing options. In addition, the ouster of the Occupy protesters may have spooked some. In the days leading up to the protestors’ decision to set up an encampment at Kanawha Plaza, and during discussions of returning to it after the initial raid by police, some participants warned the larger group about bringing unwanted attention to the homeless community inside the park.
Since the end of their 15-day occupation of the park, some protestors have blasted the city and police for selective enforcement of a law that prohibits sleeping or camping in public parks.
But that hasn’t been the case, Drew says: “The department’s tactics in regard to homeless sleeping in public parks has been consistent.” Police aren’t ignoring homeless people, he says. Nor is it the goal of the department to send them to jail on trespassing charges for sleeping in public parks. What police will do, Drew says, is “assess each situation individually to determine how and when it’s best to try and meet their needs.”
As for how police dealt with the Occupy Richmond protesters, Drew says there’s a difference between how police deal with homeless people in need and the protesters who were warned repeatedly that they were defying the law.
As for City Hall’s position, Mayor Dwight Jones’ office didn’t respond to questions regarding its policy on trespassing at public parks.
It’s a matter of the homeless being caught in the middle, says Councilman E. Martin Jewell, the protesters’ most vocal advocate on City Council. “The city only seems to care now because there seems to be a common cause,” he says.
Jewell recently introduced legislation that would designate Kanawha Plaza as a free-speech zone of sorts. If enacted, the ordinance ostensibly would allow both protestors and homeless persons to camp, sleep and set up tents after dusk without being chased out by police. City Council is set to review the proposal in late January. S