It’s 97 degrees and the benches at Monroe Park burn to the touch. Devon sits on a shaded one with Cynthia, A.J. and two other people.
“To be honest with you, I was doing perfectly fine, but I just got my camel pack stolen today,” Devon says. “I have a condition where, if the heat is beating on me too hard, I’m going to faint and have nose bleeds.”
They’re here avoiding the heat in the cool of the park, where many of Richmond’s homeless people congregate. It features shade, bathrooms and a water fountain.
Devon is a dishwasher and part-time construction worker, but he has no place to live. “As far as being in the heat,” he says, “I always keep a hat, a canteen and a fan with me to stay cool and hydrated. I’ve been blessed with people giving out water.”
Jim and Michelle Kruize have come to do just that. “We had a little bit of time to kill,” Jim says. “We get in the truck and drive, go where the Lord tells us.”
They hand out water in exchange for a short prayer session with the people on the bench. The Kruizes are members of the South Richmond church formerly known as the Richmond Outreach Center, now the Celebration Church and Outreach Ministry.
Jim Kruize thinks plans by the Monroe Park Conservancy to renovate the park are an excuse to get rid of the homeless people, he says: “If you have the resources to invest in the park, why don’t you have the resources to invest in the people?”
Devon, Cynthia and A.J. compare notes about other places they go to cool off.
“They have a cooling center at social services and a big fat cooler full of ice water all day,” Devon says. “Anybody can go in and sit down and keep cool and they give you water and ice. It’s a lotta love.”
“But you have to walk so far to get to social services,” Cynthia says.
The city offers two cooling centers — one downtown at the Department of Social Services on East Marshall Street and another on Hull Street at the Southside Community Services Center. They are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. when the heat index or temperature is expected to reach or exceed 95 degrees.
“If you go to the library, at least be reading a book or something,” Devon says. “Make yourself look busy. Don’t just go in there and be like you’re trying to keep cool. They’re going to look at you suspicious and probably tell you to go.”
A.J. says he’s been kicked out of the Franklin Street Richmond library. “If you go to a library too many times, they’ll ask you to leave,” he says. “And I read books all the time. After you read the newspaper, they tell you to leave after so much time.”
The new director of the Richmond Public Library system, Scott Firestine, says there’s no policy regarding library use for any length of time.
“The library is an open, public building, as long as you’re not sleeping or inhibiting others’ access to the library,” he says. “The general policy is that people are allowed to come in and use the library space and public toilets as long as they’re being respectful.”
Cynthia says she tried to hang out in some businesses. “But everybody’s got their limit, 30 minutes to an hour, before they kick you out,” she says. “They don’t care about the homeless.”
“It’s worse in the wintertime,” Devon adds.
“But the hot weather and the heat, it’s exhausting,” Cynthia says. “You need somewhere to go to sit in, and to be cool.”
Another man carrying a cooler walks through the center of the park.
“Want some Gatorade?” he asks everyone, handing out small, cold bottles of the sports drink. No prayer required.
Where else do they go?
“In the shade,” Devon says. S