Looking for the Exit

Brown-coated wanderers are an unwelcome contrast to the gleaming Richmond in the dreams of developers. Can city leaders and agencies finally help the homeless find a way out?

Thomas wears a coat with a Marlboro logo over a Midlothian Athletic Department jacket. His hands are chapped and callused, his words precise. He never finished school, he says, having started work at 13, but later obtained his high school equivalency.

“I came here to take care of a little bit of business, and it really didn’t work out the way it was supposed to,” Thomas says. That was seven years ago. He’s been homeless ever since. “I got personal problems in my life,” he says. “But I got to deal with it better than I been doing.”

For many on the streets, refuge from those problems comes in bricks. “That drug called crack, it’s an epidemic,” Thomas says. “It hinders you from doing for yourself.”

This morning, he says, he woke desperate. “I made up my mind,” he says. “I got to leave it alone.” He’s tried drinking wine to kill the cravings, he says, but lately, “it’s been causing me to black out.” Not long ago he fell and scraped his face, the wound still visible under his left eye.

Thomas says he appreciates the daily breakfast at Freedom House, the Daily Planet’s free shower and laundry facilities, and the shelters where he sometimes stays. What Richmond agencies offer the homeless “is a very fair and good program,” he says. “I think that they’re doing just about everything they can.” But here he stands on a bridge, gazing at the traffic with haunted eyes.

Across Canal Street, another homeless man scans his surroundings. Satisfied that no one is watching, he drops his blanket and bundled possessions over a chain-link fence and into the undergrowth above the highway. Safe. He walks away.

Thomas looks down. “I see some, they just prefer this kind of life,” he says. “I don’t. I don’t prefer this.”

The pressure’s on for Richmond’s more than 100 service agencies to end the endless walk of the homeless, to solve the problems faced by Daniel Thomas and hundreds like him who stand in the cold. The problems are big: Addiction and alcoholism. Frustration and complacency. Survival and despair.

Some, like Thomas, yearn to escape. Others do, in fact, prefer to remain in the street life. Some have been taking their meals at Freedom House for five or six years. “They’re pretty much addicted to the lifestyle of homelessness,” says Susan Sekerke, development director for Freedom House.

The problem is, agencies freely admit, that the services they provide enable people to remain displaced indefinitely. Of the 1,600 people who are homeless on an average day in Richmond (a number that recently has been rising), 85 percent will find a place to live within a year. The others stay in the life longer, often bound by drugs, mental illness, or most frequently, both.

For a long time, agencies like Sekerke’s have debated: “Do you advocate for their right to be homeless, or do you advocate for services to get them out of homelessness?” The answer, until now, has been to do both.

But the nonprofit world is entering a new age. As in the business world, accountability is in. At the United Way, the region’s biggest financial supporter of homeless services, funding is now given on an outcome-based model, meaning agencies must prove their programs work. Competition between them is tenser, their budgets leaner. “The money’s running out,” Sekerke says.

So is time. Every city has its homeless, but brown-coated wanderers are an unwelcome contrast to the gleaming Richmond in developers’ dreams. Sure, in Manhattan no one’s fazed by the presence of panhandlers. But when Richmond’s sidewalks are empty but for the homeless, business leaders say, it makes people reluctant to venture downtown.

The nonprofits are optimistic that they can transform their services from enabling homelessness to pushing people out of the street life. And, for the first time, they’re recruiting businesses and not-in-my-backyard neighborhoods as their allies, not their foes. How did things start to change so quickly? It started with a hand-drawn map.

Until recently, business leaders thought the solution was simple. Move the agencies that serve the homeless, and their clients would follow.

For years, in fact, the directors of Freedom House have been desperate to move their meals program into a less dilapidated building than the brick outpost at 302 Canal St., an eyesore that has long been hated by downtown visionaries. After years of searching, however, no neighborhood would let them in. So in summer 2002, Executive Director Melba Gibbs announced that Freedom House, and the crowds who gathered there, would stay put.

Business leaders and developers panicked. They responded to Gibbs’ declaration by reviving an idea that had been scrapped years ago: that Freedom House relocate, along with the Daily Planet, to a site on 17th and O streets near the city jail. This time, the deal was sweetened by an anonymous donor’s offer of $1 million to move there.

But the site was chemically contaminated and would cost $500,000 to clean, and was distant from where the homeless typically walk. The agencies turned down the offer, miffing some of their would-be benefactors.

Gibbs, Sekerke and others realized that the business community had to understand that moving the providers of food and shelter “further up and farther out” was not an easy solution. Sekerke sought a simple way to show the hidden life of Richmond’s homeless. So, in August, she drew a map.

The map was unveiled in September, at a meeting of homeless agency directors and prominent city business leaders: Jim Ukrop, chairman of Ukrop’s Super Markets and First Market Bank, a leading developer and philanthropist. Reggie Gordon, executive director of the homeless-services umbrella group Homeward. Jack Berry, executive director of Richmond Renaissance.

Sekerke’s hand-drawn arrows and triangles revealed patterns in the daily lives of the city’s displaced people, showing those at the meeting that merely moving a few agencies around like checkers wouldn’t change what they saw downtown. Those gathered at the meeting saw illustrated the long walk that Richmond’s homeless take every day — the wearying circuit on city streets that is for some, a restless search for a way out and for others, a well-worn rut.

“Your whole day is consumed by survival,” says Walter Jones, who’s been homeless several times in his 40 years. “You can get trapped into that cycle .… The next thing you know, it’s nine months later. Your self-esteem is blown to bits.”

It’s not just the much-maligned service agencies that draw the homeless downtown, but also convenience stores, work sites, career centers and even peaceful places to sit. If you remove agencies from the city center, people who are homeless will still make their daily trek, those at the meeting realized — it’ll just get longer.

They also learned that not all the wanderers were homeless. Many, in fact, are residents of three private adult homes downtown. (One is now closed.) The biggest is the Dooley-Madison Home, a stately brick building on Grace Street that is home to about 87 people, most with mental illness and nowhere else to go. There’s also Tiffanie’s Manor for Young Adults, in a dark-windowed building on Jefferson Street, and Grace Home, which was recently shut down.

There are 150 beds in these three homes, compared to about 75 in the city’s homeless shelters. Residents there habitually come to meals provided for the homeless because, they say, they don’t get enough to eat. “Everyone got blended together,” Gordon says of the walkers downtown that many perceive as a faceless mass. “They were these gray people, and everyone assumed they were homeless.”

Ukrop realized then, he says, that even “if all the homeless people disappeared from downtown, the perception might be that they’re still there.”

There are a wealth of agencies — more than 100 — that provide services to Richmond’s homeless. “But there’s no exit strategy,” Ukrop observes. “All we’ve been doing is servicing and recycling, but not really providing a service that helps these people exit the problem.”

How do you stop taking the Walk? That’s the big question. At last, there seem to be some new answers — and some are coming from the homeless.

alter Jones, Mike Ogden and Josef “Rasjay” Burnett stand outside the Daily Planet one Monday morning. They’re arguing good-naturedly, paperback dictionary in hand, about whether Jones is correct to call Burnett “narcissistic.”

It’s around 9 a.m., and these three, who are homeless, have paused on the Walk. It begins early, around 5 a.m., at the moment you wake. By 6 a.m., long lines grow outside the many labor-pool offices in the city, which recruit day laborers for low-wage jobs like warehouse work or cleaning construction sites. Participants say they make about $30 a day, after the company charges for transportation and equipment like hardhats and gloves, depending on the job.

Jones, Ogden and Burnett, all in their 40s, won’t waste a day on what they call the “slabor pools.” They’re unemployed not because they want to be, they say, but because they can’t get work that befits their age and skills. “I’m not mechanically inclined,” says Jones. “But my mind is not bad.”

Jones, 40, wears a clean white button-down shirt and carries a slim spiral-bound notebook wherein is neatly inscribed his thoughts on homelessness and the climb from “self-preservation” to “self-actualization.” He has the air of a professor.

“Nowadays, you have to have some viable skill or trade, or you have to have higher education” to be successful, he says. Many on the street are illiterate, have only a grade-school education or are mentally challenged. What Jones and his companions would like to see, they say, is a concerted effort by agencies to help them develop individual plans for vocational training, continuing education and lasting employment.

Jones recently completed his course of study at J. Sargeant Reynolds to earn his associate’s degree in applied science, community and social services — with honors, he proudly adds. All he wants is a job that pays $18,000, enough for him to subsist on. But “I carry baggage with me,” he says. “I’m a three-time convicted felon.” He served his time 12 years ago, he says, but who’s going to hire him with a record like that?

Ogden, 44, a man who wears a scuffed leather fedora and a gentle smile, has experience as a carpenter and electrician. If he could lease a trailer and buy tools, he says, he could hire and train other homeless men to work. Why can’t he get a grant to do just that?

Burnett is 42, a tall, rangy man with intense eyes and gray-threaded dreadlocks. He’s a jewelry designer by trade and used to support himself by selling his creations on street tables. Why isn’t there a program to help the homeless become self-employed? he asks.

Agencies are listening. But mindful of money constraints, they intend to start with the basics: teaching clients marketable skills en masse. When Freedom House relocates its daily meal service in June to the St. Luke’s building on St. James Street (a move welcomed by the agency, which was sparked indirectly by the September meeting), the agency will start a hospitality industry-training program so its clients can learn to be chefs, caterers and waiters.

Gordon plans to help Richmond’s homeless providers organize their own work force, so their clients have an option besides the temporary labor offices. The agencies could thus become self-sustaining, he says, and at the same time could help clients manage their money by holding wages in escrow accounts. Some “need parenting. That’s an awkward thing to say,” he admits, but money management is one of the long-term expectations that agencies are beginning to outline for their clients.

Jones and company just hope businesses downtown will commit to employing them. “The people who want the change are the same people who are in the position to get the homeless off the street,” Jones says. He urges the new convention center, the hotels and the restaurants to make a point of hiring the homeless, so “instead of him sitting in the doorway when you come to work, he’s in the doorway because he’s coming to work.”

For Jones, Ogden and Burnett, the day when they work where they want seems far away. But it could be closer, former counselor Jack Hession believes — they’re just standing in the wrong place.

If you’re homeless, the day is long. After the late-morning trek east on Grace or north to Jackson Ward to pick up a free bagged lunch from a church, “you’ve got six, seven hours of void that you have to fill somehow,” Hession says.

Many hang out at the Planet all day. Some seek out other places to stay — parks, friends’ apartments, former workplaces, malls (“hang out, look at all the things you can’t buy,” scoffs Hession). A waste of time, he says.

He chooses to spend his afternoon in the Richmond Career Advancement Center on Broad Street, where he’s eating his church lunch — luncheon meat sandwich, fruit, snack cake, hard-boiled egg — in the small break room. Hession pauses in his meal to explain that there is, in fact, an abundance of employment and education assistance available that could help those who are homeless and motivated.

Hession, 53, has spent the past seven years of his life working with the homeless, as a counselor at Freedom House and at shelters in Boston, his hometown. Just after Thanksgiving, he says, he was hospitalized with pneumonia and wasn’t able to pay his bills. Now he’s sleeping at CARITAS (Congregations Around Richmond Involved To Assure Shelter) and eating with his former clients. “So I know both sides of the street,” he says wryly.

A chef by trade, Hession says emphysema and a bad back keep him from taking a full-time restaurant job. So he comes to the spacious center at Jefferson and Broad streets almost daily to use the computers and the fax machine, looking for work and a grant to continue his college education.

At 2 p.m., only a handful of people are using the Career Advancement Center, which is federally funded and open to all. Help is available if you’re homeless, Hession says — but few people know that.

Hession is exactly right, says Gordon. “We have people who are homeless only because of a lack of information. This is a travesty.” No single person knows every service, grant and program available, he says. “That’s why centralized intake is crucial.”

No later than 2006, Homeward plans to open an intake center that’s open 24 hours daily, not only for the homeless but also for those who fear they may lose their homes. There, a caseworker would enter detailed information for each new client into a vast computer database, which would help agencies devise an individual plan for each person.

Those who need meals or shelter would also be issued a swipe card to help agencies keep track of people and ensure that they don’t get settled in the life of free meals, free shelter and no progress. They’ll have 90 days of meals at Freedom House, for instance, and then must shift gears into a residence or employment program. “It’s Big Brother, yes, but it’s necessary,” Gordon says. “It’s a way to have a conversation with people. They’re no longer gray.”

Homeward already has the software, but it needs to come up with $50,000 this year to pay for it. By March, Gordon says, he should have answers about when, where and how the intake process will begin.

Meanwhile, Hession acts as a one-on-one counselor. “I never thought I’d be taking my own advice. I can listen, at least.” He’s made several copies of a one-page guide to homeless services, titled “Survival in the City,” and distributes them to people new on Richmond’s streets. He advises those without IDs (which are necessary for entrance into shelters, among other things) how to obtain them, beginning with getting a library card.

Hession has no patience for people who whine about what agencies give them. “It might get old, but it’s there for you. These guys have no right to bitch,” Hession says.

He himself seems indomitable. “I can still live like a millionaire without being one,” he says, laughing, taking a swig from his Deer Park water bottle — refilled from the Career Advancement Center’s water cooler.

But being homeless is wearing on him. “I’ve got my life in this bag,” he says, looking ruefully at his seam-busted backpack. “That’s a scary feeling.”

Living without a home is scary. Anyone on the streets will tell you that. Many turn to alcohol or drugs to numb the fear, creating a cycle of addiction that is the biggest challenge of the agencies.

By 5 p.m., those who worked today have money in their pockets, and are ready to spend it. Sekerke’s map marks with black triangles the many convenience stores downtown that sell 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor, a cheap and popular way to get drunk. On the edge of the grassy lot behind 302, once called Smitty City for the homemade shelters pitched there, dozens of empty 40s gleam in the weeds.

Gordon asks why these stores aren’t regulated by zoning laws or targeted by downtown developers. “Rather than saying, ‘Let’s not have any more social service programs downtown,’ it could be that you say, ‘Well, let’s make it hard for people to open up businesses downtown that serve malt liquor or alcohol in single servings.’ You know? That’s how we stop this problem.”

But the problem of addiction isn’t contained just in glass bottles.

Tracy Minns remembers clearly the long cold nights; the costly numb of crack. In her homeless days, she often spent summer nights in a sunken lot called the Pits, off Cary Street. Dozens of people gathered there to sleep, drink and pool their money to buy bricks of crack.

The draped windows of the stately Jefferson overlook this cracked asphalt square, although it’s impossible to tell if those on high can see the camp below. Twin billboards on the corner read “Hate Your Job?” and “Folgers, the Best Part of Wakin’ Up.”

One morning, Minns woke next to a dead opossum. “I had been drinking and drugging all night,” she says. When she stumbled under the bridge near 302 Canal St. she couldn’t hear, smell or see. When daylight came, she opened her eyes to see the animal lying stiff, teeth bared, beside her.

Minns, 32, was homeless four years, from 1997 to 2001, and addicted for 11. The crack was anesthetic, but inside Minns felt a mounting desperation. She knew that she couldn’t stay on the streets forever, and that being a woman, the danger was great. A year and a half ago, a friend overdosed and died. The shock spurred her to seek help at the drug-treatment center Rubicon, where she overcame her addiction.

Others she knows aren’t so lucky. A year ago, her sister died in a drug raid, shot while she was in a house getting high. In November, Minns’ friend Yolanda Cosby was found burned to death in a portable toilet where she’d been sleeping. Minns has watched her ex-boyfriend and her street friends fail again and again to break their addictions: “They always say they gonna do it now. When they get money in their pocket, they go another way.”

On the Walk, homeless-ness and drug use go hand in hand, and it’s hard for addicts to get help when they need it. The Richmond Behavioral Health Authority offers drug treatment, but the weeks-long waiting list means when an addict is ready, the system isn’t.

Rubicon, the nonprofit center Minns used, tries not to make people wait. But state budget cuts mean the agency lost about half its funding this year. It’s now struggling to regain its feet, and its clients.

Hope lies in a new treatment center that promises results for little money. Soon, Richmond will have The Healing Place. Modeled after a center with the same name in Louisville, Ky., it will be both an overnight shelter and a place that provides treatment for addiction through a peer-led program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous.

Beginning seven years ago, Jim Ukrop, then-Mayor Tim Kaine and city activists toured the original facility, liked what they saw and decided to bring it here. The Louisville center boasts a 65-percent recovery rate, costs about $18 per person, per day, and has been copied in five other large cities. It also serves as an alternative to jail or a hospital when the police pick up homeless addicts, saving an estimated $3 million annually in ER visits and jail costs.

Agency leaders in Richmond hope The Healing Place will fill a void in Richmond’s network of rehabilitation. But ultimately, they know, it is the addict who must choose to try to end the habit.

The Walk ends each day with sleep. Some line up for space in a CARITAS shelter, some move into semi-permanent “abandominums” in boarded buildings, some merely sleep wherever they find a hidden place. But when is the Walk over for good?

It’ll be a while before agencies’ results-based strategies — centralized intake, new drug programs, vocational training — take effect. So for now, the homeless must use the resources they have.

For Minns, the Walk ended March 19, when she got a job mopping and cleaning at the Daily Planet’s headquarters after completing its Project Empowerment course in “life skills, computer stuff and budgeting.” She now lives in an apartment in Church Hill with her son, who just turned 17. He plays football and basketball at Thomas Jefferson High School, does his homework and loves video games. “It felt kinda strange trying to take care of my son after being out on the streets,” Minns admits. “It’s kinda hard trying to tell him what to do.”

For Minns, the system worked, in that she walks the Walk now only as a tour guide. But the road ahead is long. She’s looking for another job, because $5.15 an hour doesn’t go very far when you have a teenager at home.

Daniel Thomas, Walter Jones, Mike Ogden, Rasjay Burnett and Jack Hession all have a pretty good shot of finding places to live soon, statistically speaking. For 85 percent of the city’s homeless, remember, it only takes a year.

But you can do a lot of walking in one year. S

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