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There are three subjects you don't talk about without consulting your PC field manual:race, sexual orientation and homelessness. If you want to stir the pot, casually drop some frank remarks about the homeless and even friends will start apologizing for you, qualifying your thoughts or treating you as some kind of Nazi sympathizer. Be prepared to go it alone.
The Richmond CARITAS Web site is brimming with pictures of needy children, helpless mothers and abused women, but if we are honest, that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about a hardcore group, mostly men, that survives on or abuses public charity and sympathy. Some do quite well, others just get by. Some have developed sophisticated shticks to separate the gullible from their cash. The trick is to stick to your story and not break character. My early experience in Richmond has some embarrassing incidents. I must have had a "sucker" sign around my neck, because they could see me coming. I believed the most absurd stories and went to great length to offer assistance. "My car broke down on 64 and I need $50 for parts." "The last bus just left and I need to get out to Chesterfield." Or my favorite, "I'm the women's basketball coach for William and Mary and I need bus fare to Williamsburg." You get to the point where you don't believe anybody's story no matter how reasonable. That's the danger we all fear, losing our compassion, our humanity.
Monroe Park is ground zero for "Operation Homeless." Its effects radiate throughout the Fan and downtown. Little consideration is given to the damage and danger the surrounding community must deal with. A West End church leader's comment regarding the murder of Susanne Thompson was, "Well, that wasn't around here." To my amazement, City Councilman Marty Jewell said the same thing to me. The dispensers of charity are a mixed bag. Some have a political agenda, others are spreading salvation and some are just seeking to follow Jesus' commandment to "Feed my sheep." On the receiving end is a mixed group of the needy and the greedy used to picking and choosing which charity offers the best spread.
Here's the order of service on a recent Sunday:
The biggest operation of the day is the first one, Stave Ministries/Food Inc. When I get there at 8 a.m., there are 60 people in line already and no sight of food. The diners are mostly men, as expected. As we inch toward 8:30, the line begins to grow. Cars arrive, tables are set up and food is unloaded, but the wait continues. There's a lot of chatter up and down the line, friends greeting each other and giving each other grief.
Breakfast finally arrives and the line starts to move. There are now more than 200 in line with me. Breakfast consists of potatoes, scrambled eggs, sausage, sandwiches, pastries, bagels, doughnuts, fresh fruit and your choice of hot chocolate or coffee. Seconds are encouraged. A 5-year-old hands me a Krispy Kreme. I purposely take a light plateful. I'm not the intended target of this food. I decide to duck into Sacred Heart Cathedral for Mass. The contrast of the splendid dome and stained glass with the Spartan atmosphere across the street is alternately disconcerting and reassuring. Inside it is clean, warm and quiet. Outside it is dirty, cold and crude.
The crowd thins out and spreads around the park. Cigarettes are broken out and between-meal naps are begun. There's time to hang around the fountain, talk to friends and bum cigarettes or beer if you can get it. Conversations are loud and laced with profanity. There are a few vulgar shouting matches and some mock fights that don't lead to anything. Small groups come and go. Sandwiches and hot dogs are distributed and consumed. The food is average and is eaten without much comment.
I chat with two regulars, neither of whom are homeless or especially hungry. Gloria was well-dressed, with a nice watch and expensive fingernails. She just came down to see what was being served today. She told me the "chicken man" should be along shortly. Cliff took the bus down from his apartment on the North Side to see some of his buddies. He's full of information. "The chicken man should be here around 3, then the vegetarians will show up, but you never know what to expect. You get your 'pop-ins' and your regulars. Sometimes church groups will bring by leftovers from an anniversary feast, then Kroger's might drop off some expired food. It's all good."
It's been an ecumenical experience including Protestants, Catholics, Jews and even gays from Metropolitan Community Church. They are from all parts of the metro area, including the Fan. Even the vegans made an appearance. I'm told they are vegetarians, not extraterrestrials.
Truth is this is not funny. Doing what we have been doing just guarantees more of the same. It guarantees the city will remain a pocket of poverty surrounded by prosperous and ever more distant suburbs. It guarantees a bleak future for those too poor and isolated to escape. It condemns another generation of children to a hopeless future they had no part in creating. Compassion is a mighty thing and comes easily at others' expense. Here is what I propose. There should be real reform of the behavioral health system. We must examine the balance between civil rights and public safety. Dumping the mentally ill on Richmond's streets will no longer cut it.
Feeding programs should be moved out of Monroe Park and resources should be channeled into established organizations such as Homeward and the Daily Planet that serve the comprehensive needs of the homeless.
Existing laws regarding vagrancy, panhandling and sleeping on the streets should be enforced. People should be offered a choice between a shelter, a rehab facility or jail. Enabling people to continue unhealthy and destructive behavior doesn't help anyone.
A regional solution needs to be developed. The homeless come from all over the metro area and state. The counties and the state need to help pay for their care.
We owe a special debt to veterans. They should be sought out and cared for.
There's a lot of pent-up anger out there, and the time is ripe for needed change. We have a responsibility to the thousands of students who treat the park as a black hole in the middle of their campus. We owe it to the future of our city and we owe it to the homeless. The urban experiment need not be a failure or a fairy tale. Compassion and common sense need not be enemies. S
Paul Hammond is a freelance writer, activist and volunteer living in downtown Richmond and currently working as a database analyst.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.