In May of 1986 I began my first ‘real’ nursing job: I worked as a nurse practitioner at the Cross-Over Health Clinic, located in a multi-service center for homeless people called the Richmond Street Center. Located in downtown Richmond (Virginia), the Street Center housed the clinic, a shelter, soup kitchen, laundry and shower services, and many social workers. The lead agency for the Street Center was the Daily Planet (which I’ll write more about in follow-up blog posts in this series). Working at the Street Center clinic as my first nurse practitioner job was either ambitious or ill conceived, and I often thought it was both on the same day. After a few months working at the Street Center I no longer freaked out when I saw scabies or crabs, gangrene, maggots, or schizophrenia.
The Street Center was thick-walled and cavernous. It was located in the armpit of town, on the border between Monroe Ward, Gamble’s Hill, and Oregon Hill near the James River. Built on land that had been the old city dump, the building had been a gas meter repair shop for the city as well as a storage unit for abandoned bicycles. The city donated the building as a way to appease the downtown merchants who wanted to get the street people—the visible homeless—away from their struggling businesses. Kudzu vines draped over trees and telephone polls; they formed a convenient curtain to block the public’s view of the ugly, forbidding looking building.
The Street Center was located at the corner of Belvidere and Canal Streets, with the main entrance on Canal. The building was flush with the narrow sidewalk. Belvidere Street, a busy four lane divided highway that ran north to south, was part of US Route 301 extending down to Sarasota, Florida, and up to Delaware. Across Belvidere from the Street Center was a 7-11 that sold cigarettes, cheap beer and flavored wine like Boone’s Farm and Thunderbird, all popular with the Street Center clientele. South of the Street Center were the hulking brick buildings of the Virginia Penitentiary, and just to the west was Hollywood Cemetery where a relative of mine—Jefferson Davis—and 20,000 confederate soldiers lay buried. In the block north of our building was a Hostess Twinkie factory. The sweet buttery smell of the factory mingled with the acrid smells of the Street Center: damp oil-stained concrete, souring unwashed bodies, old urine, and cigarette smoke.
When the Street Center opened in April 1986, homelessness was getting extensive national and local attention, with almost daily newspaper and TV news coverage. In May of that year, USA for Africa teamed up with Coca-Cola to sponsor Hands Across America to raise money for “fighting hunger and homelessness.” They had thousands of people hold hands for 15 minutes in cities across the nation. President Reagan joined in the hand holding from the White House, reportedly shamed into doing it by his daughter. There was a sense that homelessness—at least this new version of homelessness—could be cured.
As a group, people who were homeless were called street people; they were poverty made visible on the streets and sidewalks. Homeless people, mostly in the form of older alcoholic men, had been part of the American urban scene for a long time. They had been called vagrants, paupers, hobos, and bums. What was new was a combination of the sheer number of homeless people, along with the changing face of homelessness. There were now women, younger people, and entire families living on the streets.
Homelessness was portrayed as a national disgrace, and the urban housing market crisis and government inaction were mostly to blame. People talked about upstream measures and prevention of homelessness, but in a fuzzy idealistic way such as ending poverty and increasing housing. There was frequent mention of deinstitutionalization, the effort to get mentally ill and developmentally disabled adults out of long-term mental hospitals and back out into the community. This was a laudable idea stemming from the 1960’s Civil Rights era, but one that hadn’t worked out so well. Many of the people who had been in institutions needed permanent supervised housing and on-site help with counseling and medication. That combination was scarce to non-existent, and the services that did exist were underfunded and understaffed. Rising numbers of Vietnam vets who had untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, or who had gotten hooked on heroin or alcohol while in the army, were now homeless. Most were men in their early 30’s, at the time of their lives when they should have been settling down and raising a family, but they had been left behind.
All of us service providers at the Street Center believed in our grand cause. Homeless advocates pointed out that homelessness wasn’t as big a problem in Richmond as it was in large cities such as New York, and that if our community acted fast enough we could prevent it from getting out of control. We had a barely murmured, mostly unspoken code of talking up the numbers of the homeless we were serving, while simultaneously talking down any individual vulnerabilities of homeless people, vulnerabilities such as mental illness and substance abuse. We feared that would fuel a backlash of public sentiment against homeless people. We had a vested interest in sustaining the funding for our agencies, for the homeless people we were serving, and for our own jobs. We would say we were trying to work ourselves out of a job, but I don’t think any of us actually believed it.
In the 1980’s, during the time I worked with and became homeless, Mark Holmberg, a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter, wrote articles with provocative titles such as “Homeless by Choice” and “Homelessness as a State of Mind.” He spent a night at a Richmond emergency shelter, interviewed homeless people and homeless advocates who he often characterized as having misdirected passion. In August 2005 when the bulldozers had finally razed the Richmond Street Center building at the corner of Canal and Belvidere Streets, Mr. Holmberg, in an article titled “Memory of Building Lingers, And So Does Homelessness,” wrote: “It was a sort of one-stop shop—driven largely by love and honest concern—that drew people with tough problems into a concentrated knot of dysfunction. (…) Good riddance, old friend.”
Mr. Holmberg echoed what many Richmond residents felt toward the Daily Planet, that it was synonymous with softhearted, wrongheaded homeless advocacy. And for the fifteen years of its existence, the Richmond Street Center was synonymous with the Daily Planet. Part of me agrees with this assessment, and I see that I was one of those softhearted, wrongheaded homeless advocates. But I’m glad I was. I still believe it’s better than becoming the hardhearted alternative. Even though I didn’t rely on homeless advocates or their services when I experienced homelessness myself, the knowledge that they were there helped me survive and move on.
The dark, hulking 1920’s era three-story brick building on Canal Street that housed the Richmond Street Center was owned by the City of Richmond. Beginning in 1985, the City leased the building to the Street Center’s lead agency, the Daily Planet, for $10 a year. In 1993 the city agreed to sell the property to the Ethyl Corporation, who offered to pay $300,000 to re-locate the Daily Planet. But no suitable site was located in time, mainly because no one in Richmond wanted the Daily Planet consumers in their neighborhood. Ethyl backed out of the agreement in 1995 and concentrated instead on purchasing the land where the Virginia State Penitentiary had stood for two hundred years. Meanwhile, an anonymous donor offered $2 million for the Daily Planet to move its services away from the downtown business core, preferably into Shockoe Valley next to the Richmond City Jail. The Daily Planet Board of Directors declined the offer. In early 2000 the Daily Planet moved four blocks north to its current Grace Street Location. Four years later the City Council sold the now abandoned and boarded up Canal Street property to the Virginia Commonwealth University for $250,000 for them to build student housing and a Starbucks store.
**Note: This is the first blog post of a ten-part series on health and homelessness in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. The series is based on my work as a nurse providing health care to people marginalized by poverty and homelessness, as well as on research I have conducted over the past few years (e.g.: archival research, site visits, key-informant interviews, and records review). I plan to post a new entry in this series every other day.