Homeless Refuse and Refuge

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The James River and Richmond Skyline 2014/Josephine Ensign

Health and Homelessness in Richmond, Virginia in the 1980s: A half-mile south of the Richmond Street Center was the wide James River. Along the riverbanks lived a group of my patients who called themselves the River Rats.

The River Rats consisted of a dozen or so adults, mostly men, with a few women who were married or otherwise attached to the men. The River Rats ranged in age from twenty-six years old, to an older man named Bruce* who said he was fifty-two, but looked much older. Many of the River Rats lived together under a bridge by the river. They were heavy drinkers who enjoyed the relative freedom of living outside on their own. The frat party atmosphere permeated the area. On summer weekends the River Rats drank alongside the young Richmonders who sunbathed on the flat rocks, or inner tubed in the smaller rapids, floating coolers full of beer beside them.

A few of the River Rats rode the rails. They hopped on and off the freight trains passing through Richmond. They were traditional hobos out of a different era. They had been to more parts of the country than most people had in their lifetimes—certainly more than I had been to at the time (I was in my mid-twenties then). Several of them came to me with hand and knee abrasions from tumbling off a moving train and getting scraped up on the gravel railroad track bed. In my second year at the Street Center, one of my regular rail-riding patients was buried alive in an open coal car the morning after he’d celebrated his thirtieth birthday by getting more drunk than usual. His travel partner told me about it the next time he came into the clinic.

Richmond was (and still is) at the cross-roads of two major east coast interstates, I-95 and I-64, as well as of two major freight train lines, so the city got a fair number of people traveling through, hitchhiking or riding the rails or the Greyhound bus, who stopped and got stuck, or stayed for whatever reason. They were like the flotsam caught in swirling eddies of the river.

There was discussion in the two local newspapers about whether the homeless people in Richmond were really from Richmond, or even from Virginia. Many of the newspaper articles featured interviews with homeless people who said they were from Baltimore, or New York City, or Philadelphia. The underlying implication was that many of the homeless people in Richmond were from the North; therefore, they were either invaders, or proof that the large northern cities were dumping their problems on Richmond, taking advantage of Southern hospitality. Richmond was enabling felons, drug addicts, and lazy people who were homeless by choice. They would never be able to be recycled into productive citizens, the articles seemed to say. Newspaper articles were more sympathetic to homeless people in Richmond who reported being from impoverished rural areas of Virginia or North Carolina. Whether they were black or white, they had been dealt a bad hand in life. They were our people and we took care of them.

Homelessness was an urban problem I associated with large, gritty urban areas like New York or Baltimore. I was surprised to see homelessness on such a large scale in my own hometown. The center of Richmond was decaying. Discarded carcasses of old buildings were everywhere. There were buildings with boarded up windows and doors, charred remains of other buildings, people’s belongings dumped in disheveled piles on the sidewalk curbside: evidence of evicted people, now homeless. Driving through the city at night you could catch glimpses of dark darting shadows or muffled flashes of a cigarette lighter, flashlight, or candle in some of the boarded up houses. The shadows were squatters, homeless people—ghosts. Houses that were still legally lived in showed signs of faded beauty. Stone cornices and intricate wooden lattice dangled loosely from front porches.

Along Belvidere Street near the Street Center, two blocks of houses had been razed to make way for expansion of the university. For over a year, to cordon off the construction site from sidewalk and street, the construction crew lined up old doors from the torn down houses. They leaned the doors against temporary chain-link fences anchored by large concrete blocks; this made a long expanse of multicolored doors, which was as beautiful and shocking as a modern art installation. Sitting in my car at a stoplight on my way to and from work, I’d stare at the doors. I marveled at the deeply saturated red doors, wondering what sorts of rooms they had opened into. There were also a few doors that had obviously belonged to children’s bedrooms. They were decorated with brightly colored Disney characters like Donald Duck and Cinderella. I wondered if some of the doors had belonged to patients of mine who were now homeless. And I wondered what it must feel like to be a child and recognize the stickers from your old bedroom door as you were being dragged along the street by the hand toward the emergency shelter.

In stark contrast to the dismantled and rotting parts of the inner city were patches of rebuilding and renovating. The biggest of these was the ill-fated $16 million glass-enclosed Sixth Street Marketplace spanning Broad Street. Built in 1986, the Marketplace was meant to bring back small businesses to the downtown core of Richmond. It failed and was torn down less than twenty years later at a cost of $67 million. Closer to the Street Center was the grand Jefferson Hotel, built with tobacco money after the Civil War. It had been sitting empty for over a decade, although it was occasionally used to film movies or host high school proms. The grand staircase of polished marble was rumored to have been the model for the staircase in Gone With the Wind. My Lee-Davis High School senior prom had been held there as the hotel was closing.

By 1986 they had completed a $34 million dollar renovation of the Jefferson, and the hotel was reopened simultaneously with the opening of the Street Center. The buildings were several blocks apart. Standing in front of the Street Center on Canal Street, the Jefferson loomed over the top of it: pale grey marble against dark brick, majestic rich above outcast poor. At night the tall grey clock tower of the hotel glowed in the floodlights.

* Note: All names and other identifying details of former patients have been changed.

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