This is in response to the recently unnveiled plans for renovations of Monroe Park in Richmond, Virginia, as well as comments about the park from Charles R. Samuels who is the City Councilman for the 2nd district where Monroe Park is located. This is written by a longtime member of the Richmond Food Not Bombs organization, which has been serving a weekly meal in the park for over 16 years.

The Conrad Center at 1400 Oliver Hill Way is an unacceptable location for the centralization of ‘homeless services’. There are multiple reasons as to why this location is unacceptable. The logistical reasons have to do with the difficulty of accessing the Conrad Center. The Conrad Center is in a valley, between two steep hills. This means that for many folks with children, disabilities, etc. the location itself is very difficult if not impossible to reach. The Conrad Center is also geographically isolated, which means that even in nice weather it is a long walk from the other places where homeless people might be hanging out. There is not really any place near by that homeless people could hang out between meals (breakfast and dinner) at the Conrad Center. In extreme weather- hot or cold or wet, people risk their health and well being walking so far.

Before the Conrad Center was a reality, homeless people voiced their concerns about the location. They were ignored. Tactics which could have been implemented to make the Conrad Center more accessible even in its terrible location were ignored and neglected. If people who used the Conrad Center were given free bus passes so they could reach the Conrad Center, it would be a lot more useful to a lot more people. However, free bus service is not provided. And now Richmond’s only source of public transportation, the GRTC bus system is cutting routes and raising rates. Which is yet another attack on the poor and working classes which continues to make the Conrad Center a less and less acceptable location.

Aside from its isolation, the location of the Conrad Center is unacceptable because of its psychological impacts. Situated across from the Richmond City Jail, and next to the court and women’s jail, the Conrad Center is a very stigmatizing place. The location of the Conrad Center is clearly part of an ongoing push to make the homeless less visible, and part of the mindset which pushes to criminalize homelessness. Beyond the terrible location of the Conrad Center, the concept of isolating homeless people from other people is also extremely unhealthy. Creating spaces that are ‘homeless only’ prevents friendships and communication across classes. Isolating the homeless reduces their connections with others in the Richmond community and makes them more vulnerable to racist and classist legislation. Homeless people face oppression from many sides, and isolating them only increases this potential for oppression.

The Monroe Park Advisory Council does not accurately represent the people who are involved in activities in Monroe Park. The Advisory Council should not have any decision making powers over what goes on in Monroe Park. There should be public meetings to decide what happens in Monroe Park, and they should be well advertised within the park, giving people who spend time there the opportunity to participate. People who spend time in Monroe Park represent a diverse section of the Richmond population. There are people from many races, classes, religions, nationalities, and backgrounds who spend time together in the park.

Monroe Park is a public, city owned park. Management of a public space should not be handed over to a private organization, even if it is a non-profit. There need to be direct ways for citizens to have decision making power and influence over what goes on in a city park. A non-profit would inevitably be less accountable to citizen concerns about the management of the park than the city would if still directly in charge.

Any effort to push the homeless from the park, such as City Councilman Charles Samuel’s encouragement of the relocation of any feeding programs, are thinly veiled pushes for race and class segregation. Wanting to make homeless people less visible is classist. Isolating homeless people works only to further stigmatize homeless people.

Efforts to push programs that provide free resources such as food or clothes out of the park reflect an attempt to gentrify Monroe Park. Suggesting the Conrad Center as the alternative does not account for the many non-homeless people who benefit from and enjoy the services in the park. Food Not Bombs provides a weekly meal every Sunday at 4pm which is shared with anyone who wants to come. There is no bureaucracy, no dehumanizing paper work to fill out, no need to qualify for access to the food. Anyone is welcome to come and share a healthy community meal once a week. There are people from many backgrounds who share this meal. Not all of these people would be welcome at the Conrad Center. There are lots of other community events that happen at Monroe Park which benefit many different people and which are not transferable to the Conrad Center. The monthly Really Really Free Market has been in Monroe Park for over 2 years, providing a community alternative to the capitalist market. Many other groups and individuals sporadically come to the park to distribute clothes, food, games, etc.

Monroe Park, like many public facilities could use improvements. More trashcans, chess tables, a playground, better restrooms, more benches etc. are all amenities which could be beneficial. But if the price of getting these improvements is increased pressure on the homeless and on anyone involved in programs to provide free services, it is not worth it. Monroe park needs to remain a place where anyone is welcome. Public parks are one of the few places where it is safe and legal for homeless and poor people to hang out. Trying to push out the homeless is an attack.

Claims from Charles Samuels that the bathrooms and water fountains in Monroe Park do not function are false. And if they do not function, or they do not function well, the solution should simply be to repair and maintain them, not attempt to remove the population that could most benefit from their functioning. If people are concerned about litter or trash in the park they should organize weekly trash cleanups, work to get more or larger trashcans installed, or work to have trashcans emptied on a more frequent basis. If the trashcans are not sufficient to hold the amount of trash produced by people in the park, then it seems like the park is certainly receiving plenty of traffic. As far as I know, the trash in Monroe Park is currently maintained by VCU. So I question claims by Charles Samuels that the amount of use and thus trash the park gets cost the city money.

Claims from Charles Samuels that the food being served for free is not safe are faulty and appear to be aimed at creating excuses to push out programs that serve the homeless and others, thus making the homeless and poor feel less comfortable in the park. Attempts at forcing regulation on groups or individuals distributing free food are an attack on folks who are operating outside of the capitalist market and on low income people. I have not heard complaints about the food that Food Not Bombs serves. I eat it on a weekly basis and have never had any ‘gastro-intestinal’ problems as a result. The food is good and it is prepared with care. It also frequently more nutritious and of higher quality than the sorts of food I have seen served in standard homeless feeding locations.

  1. […] Anarchist Collective, a group heavily involved in the weekly Food Not Bombs feeding, has published a critique of what they are calling attempts to genrify Monroe Park: Monroe Park, like many public facilities could use improvements. More trashcans, chess tables, a […]