Friday, July 18, 2014

Richmond’s Homeless on the VCU Campus

Richmond’s Homeless on the VCU Campus
By Amy Derr

Alfred Jones sat on a bench in Monroe Park waiting for the bus to arrive at 5:30 p.m. to take him to a church where he will eat, bathe and rest for the night. Facing the Sacred Heart Cathedral in the setting sun, Jones, 60, talked about his experiences being homeless as well as his thoughts about VCU students.
“I think the students are fine,” Jones said. “They’re out here getting an education.”
VCU students and the homeless of downtown Richmond cross paths in places like Monroe Park, the library and 7-Elevens. Sometimes they stop to say hello, but most of the time, they silently move past each other.
Jones said he sometimes talks to students, depending on whether they respond to his initial start of conversation.
“Here’s an example of how students act,” he said, pointing to a girl wearing a red sweatshirt and carrying a brown bag. He sent a hearty “hello” to the girl. She nodded but made no eye contact.
Another girl walked briskly through the darkening park toward Gladding Residence Center carrying two grocery bags.
“I want some chicken tonight,” he said, pointing to her Ukrops bags, but she did not look up.
“A lot of the students are…” he paused.
“Stuck up?” a friend waiting for the bus with him interjected.
“No, I wouldn’t say that,” Jones responded. “They’re being on the safe side because of Taylor Behl.” The 2005 murder of VCU Taylor Behl has devastated a large part of the college community and led Jones to believe that students are more cautious about exchanging words with strangers.
Just as the homeless share opinions of how they’re treated around the VCU campus, several students offer their encounters with the homeless of Richmond as well.
Tom Durst, a junior physics major, said he prefers to be left alone on the streets around VCU instead of being asked for money by many homeless.
“The homeless kind of get irritating sometimes because I’m too busy just trying to get to class or back to my apartment,” he said. “I just don’t want to deal with them.”
Galen Canham, a sophomore Urban Studies major, said she can’t imagine the tribulations that go along with not having a home but is bothered if they persist asking her for change.
“Sometimes they get annoyed if you don’t have money,” she said. Canham says she cannot afford to give away her money because of her budget as a college student.
She talks to them, however, and has even come across a few interesting personalities.  One man walks around with a boom box that “plays 70s funk music,” she said.
“The homeless can be fun to talk to,” she said.
Erica Bunk, a sophomore, says she feels more inclined to give to the homeless, instead of turning a blind eye to her campus neighbors.
“They’re people too,” she said, standing outside of Shafer Dining Center eating an ice cream cone.
“People shouldn’t be so mean to them,” she said and added that she has seen many students yell things like “Back off” to the homeless. She said she tries to donate or exchange kind words when she can.

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Jones has been homeless for three weeks, making this his second time being homeless after he was homeless for six months 12 years ago.
He said he understands if students aren’t overeager to talk because “they have their own world,” but he said he has also seen the positive side of sharing Monroe Park with the students through their volunteer work in the homeless community.
“They do give,” he said. “I appreciate it, and that’s why I speak to them when they pass me in the park,” he said, walking toward Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church to catch the Congregations Around Richmond Involved to Assure Shelter (CARITAS) bus.
VCU students express how and why they would give to the homeless.
Senior biology major Linda Udezulu said helping the homeless out by giving them money seems almost ineffective in terms of the long-term help.
“I would like to help them out, but I don’t really know where to begin,” she said, while studying in Shafer Dining Center. She says she doesn’t know whether to “give them a fish or teach them how to fish.”
She says by giving them money “it helps them for that day,” but she worries about the consequences of handing out money every day around VCU.
“They’ll still be going through the same situation tomorrow,” she said.
One incident that disheartened Udezula from giving money was a time she was riding in her car and a homeless person approached her window at a stoplight to ask for money but ended up “coming way too close.”
“Lucky for me, my car window was only cracked,” she said, adding that she’s more hesitant to give money now because the man frightened her by coming so close.
A few benches away from Jones sat Joseph Turner and his friends on a bench in the center of Monroe Park.Turner, 51, has been homeless for one month due to his recent divorce from his wife, but he doesn’t consider himself homeless.
“I like to be considered going through a transition,” Turner said, eyeing the fountain in the center of the park.
Like Jones, he was also waiting for the CARITAS bus to take him to the church. He said he was looking forward to eating, bathing and having a place to sleep.
He wore a thick corduroy coat, black dress pants and brown leather shoes. During the day he looks for a job and returns comes toMonroe Park to socialize and wait for the CARITAS bus.
While Turner says most students he encounters in the park don’t seem to want to converse, he believes they could be looking out for their safety.
“I understand if they’re looking out for themselves, but I think we have a lot to offer them,” Jones said. He adds that most of the homeless in Monroe Park care for each other and wouldn’t want to hang out in an unsafe environment.
“We can offer the students advice on mainly how not to become homeless,” Turner said with a chuckle.
“One thing about being homeless is that we don’t discriminate,” he said. His friends nodded in agreement. “We come from all ages, all races and all religions.”
Since the students and many homeless people share Monroe Park, words of encouragement should be exchanged between the two groups, Jones said.
“A positive word always helps,” he said. “If they just took time out to talk to us, you’d be surprised to see what would happen.”
While he believes there is this gap between the homeless and students, he also notices some good that the students do.
“There are some that speak and brighten up your day,” he said.“You realize that they recognize you as a human being.”
Seated on a bench in the center of Monroe Park, Cynthia Harris, 50, occupied her time waiting for the CARITAS bus by reading “Murder in the Supreme Court” by Margret Truman. The sun shined through the bare trees, and colorful leaves were scattered at her feet. Wearing a heavy brown coat and maroon sweater, Harris enjoyed the afternoon warmth before she got on the Caritas bus to sleep at a church for the night.
“This book is getting really good,” she said, as she turned it over.
She then talked about her mixed feelings toward the VCU students she sees every day in places like Cabell Library and Monroe Park.
“Some of them seem stuck up,” she said. “Like when you go to the library and use the bathroom, it looks like they have their noses turned up at you.”
She said she can’t recall a specific incident when a student acted this way toward her but that she “just gets that feeling sometimes.
“I like talking to some of the students in the park when they actually talk back to you.”
“I don’t ask them for anything,” she said. “They each seem to mind their own business.”
Freshman Mechanical Engineering major Vanessa Wanner agrees that the two groups seem to go their own separate ways.
“They don’t seem to bother anyone and keep to themselves,” she said while sitting on a bench in Shafer.
“My parents think they’re pretty dangerous,” she said, adding that they say things like “you shouldn’t ever go near them.”
Wanner said that while she never gives them money first-hand, because “you never know what they’re going to do with it,” she thinks it is good to donate to charities, as she’s seen her parents do.
Dave Masters, who spends his nights at the shelter Healing Place, says he has been homeless for two months since he moved to Richmond a year ago from Springfield, Mass. He is engaged to a woman who lives in Stafford, and his soon-to-be step-daughter will attend VCU in Fall 2007.
Masters, who moved from Massachusetts after his divorce, moved to Virginia to live with his sister about a year ago. He became homeless because he couldn’t afford the rent once he lost his job.
Knowing his new step-daughter is coming to VCU “really makes me proud,” he said with a smile.
“Her coming here next year makes me really want to get out and get a good job,” he said, as he ate from a bag of Fritos chips.
“Every time I see the kids at VCU, it reminds me to keep striving forward,” he said, adding that he has never experienced a negative response to his status.
“They’re helpful,” he said. “They’re not mean to anybody.”

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(Dave Masters says he has been homeless for two months since he moved to Richmond a year ago from Springfield, Mass.)
While waiting in the early afternoon sun for the Caritas bus, Kevin Caldwell, 50, piled leaves over his sleeping friend to pass time. A few friends around him laughed.
Caldwell has been homeless for two months and hopes to land a job soon at a printing company. Since arriving in Richmond two months ago from Florida, he says he has experienced nothing but positive exchanges with the students.
“There’s no heckling or bad mouthing,” he said, as he stopped scooping leaves and sat down on a bench. “They’ve got their business that they take care of and we have ours,” Caldwell said, adding that the students are busy with their schoolwork.
Caldwell says that VCU Police inscribe rules for the homeless when dealing with students.
“They’re very protective of them, which I can very well understand,” he said. “We’re even told we can run into problems if we try to talk to the young ladies.”
For the most part, Caldwell says, he’s seen a positive outreach from the students to the homeless, with some of students joining programs to feed them during the weekends.
“I have yet to see any negative,” he said.
A few blocks away from the park, at the corner of Grace and Harrison, Aurelious Peters, 52, sat on a curb beside the 7-Eleven.
Homeless since April, Peters sleeps anywhere from abandoned houses to the doorways of stores to friends’ houses on Cary Street. Like Caldwell and Masters, Peters hasn’t seen any negative responses from students.
“I think they’re really nice,” he said. “They help the homeless sometimes with food and donations.”
With three children of his own, his parental instincts promote goodwill and support to the students.
“I like to look out for the kids around here because that’s what I’d want somebody else to do for my kids,” he said. “I try to watch their backs and make sure nobody messes with them.”
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