A Homeless Mecca? 

Richmond's reputation for generosity has made the region a destination for homeless people.

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But there's one problem: He's not sure he needs it.

As homelessness goes, he figures Richmond isn't half bad. His place under the bridge is more than a campsite: It's a shelter. Located next to train tracks near the Greyhound Bus Station across from The Diamond, it has an earth and gravel floor, and two graffiti-covered concrete girders that serve as walls. There are the prerequisite empty soda cans, beer bottles, cigarette butts, blankets, mattresses and plastic containers of food scattered about. And then there's the constant grumble of cars and trucks whirring overhead. But for J.R., this is home.

Originally from Powhatan, he moved to Richmond after he lost his construction business, and his wife left for Tennessee with their four children. He now has cancer and lupus, and tells of how doctors give him two years to live. He is 42.

One might expect he'd be happy to get a bona fide address. His reluctance, some say, illustrates a perplexing conundrum: Richmond's reputation for extending a helping hand may actually be drawing more homeless men and women to Richmond.

Just ask J.R. He's made it through the winter — which wasn't so bad this year, he says. He showers a couple of times a week at First Baptist Church, less than a mile away on Monument Avenue, and he gets two grocery bags full of free food each month from Immanuel Baptist Church. To top it off, he says his girlfriend, who is in jail for stabbing her ex-boyfriend, should be getting out soon.

To many, Richmond is an attractive a place as any if you're homeless. Take, for example, the six people J.R. says he met the night before — a couple from Philadelphia and four men from North Carolina. They'd come to Richmond by bus and made their way to the nearby overpass before spreading out to meet the streets.

At any given time, 1,400 sheltered and nonsheltered people are homeless in Richmond, according to Homeward, a consortium of more than 30 organizations devoted to preventing and ending homelessness throughout the region. An estimated 41 percent are employed and 84 percent have been homeless less than a year, Homeward says. More than half have a high-school education or GED, and the average age of homeless adults in the city is 43.

They are taken care of. Each year, according to Homeward, the Richmond region spends $30 million to take the sting off homelessness. More than 90 local groups provide time, money and resources to individuals and families who are without housing.

There are 24 meals programs that operate citywide — varying from weekday lunches offered at different churches to the Sunday meals provided by Stave Ministries and Food Not Bombs in Monroe Park, to the 350 meals served daily at The Conrad Center of Freedom House (formerly The Meals Program) at the Salvation Army Area Command located at 2 W. Grace St. downtown.

And to talk to some homeless men and women in the city is to hear how Richmond increasingly is gaining a reputation as a place where it's relatively easy to navigate the streets and find some refuge.

"Richmond is a good place to be homeless," says Judith Wansley, program director for the Gilpin-Jackson Ward Family Life Skills Center, which operates out of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church on Duval Street. It's so good in Richmond, she's heard rumors about buses from other towns and localities dropping off their homeless here.

For years, Wansley says, the center served as the city's overflow shelter, opening on demand, such as when temperatures dipped below 25 degrees. As the center's director, she has seen firsthand the effects and patterns of homelessness.

But two years ago, the center stopped being an auxiliary shelter because other shelter options became available, Wansley says.

The center now offers a service for homeless people called Community Voice Mail, in which those without permanent addresses receive a phone number to access a voice mailbox that friends, family and potential employers can use. She says the program, started with a grant from Verizon that has since expired, has been a success: "Some of the homeless have been able to get jobs."

Michela Zonta, a professor of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University, says it's not surprising Richmond has been attracting the homeless. "Compared to an area like D.C. or New York, the area is much more affordable," she says, citing the regional coordination of homeless services.

Local homelessness experts acknowledge that a kind of circumstantial dichotomy exists. Consider Hurricane Katrina. In its aftermath, Richmond was noted as an affordable city with services, space and jobs, says Gail Bird Necklace, formerly of Homeward who now works at Central Intake, a processing center and resource connector for homeless people operated by Commonwealth Catholic Charities.

Bird Necklace says people without housing flock to Richmond because of the success of its programs and how it manages homelessness, but adds that there's a more fundamental phenomenon at work: location. Geographically situated on the eastern corridor between New York and Florida, Richmond is an easily accessible, mild-weathered, midsized city that's less expensive than bigger cities to the north and south. The average monthly cost to rent an apartment here is $761, compared with $2,400 in New York City, $809 in Norfolk and $1,160 in Washington, D.C., according to the real-estate research group M/PF YieldStar.

Not everyone agrees, however. Richmond isn't exactly a bargain, says one 37-year-old mother of two who says she has been paying $200 a week to live in a motel since she lost her job. She asks to remain unnamed because she fears losing her daughter, 6, and her 2-year-old son if the Richmond Department of Social Services learns she's often on the streets. Not long ago, she was renting a house for $350 a month in Oregon Hill. Now that the area is mostly gentrified, rents have escalated to three times that, she says, more than what she can make working multiple jobs.

She says many of Richmond's homeless know and look out for each other. She receives food-stamp money from the government and frequently takes advantage of the free lunches that area churches offer. She relies on handouts, she says, because she can't find a job that will pay her a living wage.

Instead, she makes herself uncomfortably visible. She wears wire-rimmed glasses and has long hay-colored hair. Her face reddened from the sun, she sits for hours at a time on a crate at a busy intersection near Jackson Ward holding a sign asking for help. She doesn't stand or approach cars, she says.

On an opposite corner, Leo Nicholas, 42, and his fiancé, Gina Bailey, 41, are having little luck. They've been standing — Nicholas with a cardboard sign reading "God loves a cheerful giver" — for three hours. They've only collected $4.50.

Until a few months ago, Nicholas says, he worked at a dry cleaner's on Jahnke Road. He says he lost his job when the owners sold the business. "We stay anywhere we can find our own place," he says of the smitties, or abandoned houses.

Nicholas and Bailey don't go to the shelters, though they say there are plenty. They don't like the rules, he says, or the "heads" — other homeless people. They rarely make it to the 6 a.m. breakfast provided at the Salvation Army location nearby, because it's too early, he says, and because they don't allow seconds.

But Nicholas says they don't go hungry. "It's easy to find food," he says, "and if I needed a shelter — yes, that too." S


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