Out of Sight
Amid the falling snow and rumbling trucks in the distance, Al and Dennis are taking stock in a patch of trees behind a shopping center in Chester. There’s a half foot of hardened snow on the ground – thanks to overnight sleet – and Dennis’ tent has collapsed.
“He’s buried in there,” says Al, 51, who’s from northern Ohio. A roofer, he lost his job during the recession. Al’s been living in the woods for the last three years, and he’s nonplussed by the icy wind as temperatures dip into the mid-20s. Dennis knocks snow from his tent from within and then crawls out.
“It’s cold,” Al says, rustling about in a jean jacket stuffed with multiple layers and an old Cleveland Browns stocking cap. “But it’s nothing like up there.”
Dennis, 58, is from Petersburg and has family nearby. Bouts with drugs and drinking landed him in jail – he lost his job as a mechanic and his driver’s license – and he’s been living in the woods ever since. That was nine years ago.
“I don’t like putting myself on family,” he says, wearing light brown overalls and a Pittsburgh Steelers cap. Unlike Al, who panhandles almost daily, he refuses to beg for money. “I just don’t do it,” Dennis says. “More like pride, I guess.”
Why settle in Chester, amid the suburban big boxes and retail strips along U.S. Route 1 – Target, Lowe’s, Starbucks, Martin’s? There are more soup kitchens and shelters in the city, but Petersburg is dangerous, Al says, and Richmond isn’t much better. Food stamps keep them both fed; beer and blankets help manage the cold.
In tents in the woods, no one bothers them.
“Everything I need is right here,” Al says. “We’re at peace.”
Living in Chesterfield’s affluent areas, it’s easy to forget the less fortunate. When we go to downtown Richmond, we see the homeless standing on the street corners, and we think it’s a “city problem.”
Many aren’t aware that Chesterfield County has its own tent cities, tucked away in the woods off Jefferson Davis Highway. Low-cost motels hide more of Chesterfield’s homeless as families rent rooms by the week.
And then there’s another population of people who gratefully camp out on a friend or family member’s sofa because they’d otherwise have nowhere else to sleep.
Homelessness comes in many forms, and all of them are present in Chesterfield. Police officers like Cpl. George Fisher see it all the time.
“We know where the camps are, and we’re in contact with them,” said Fisher from the Chesterfield Police Department’s Community Policing Unit. “I have beat officers on their own who are touching base, checking on the welfare of individuals.”
On the coldest of days, officers will offer warm blankets or try to make arrangements to shelter those in need.
“This is just another part of community policing, of reaching out to people who need help,” Fisher says. “You do it because you’re human. There but for the grace of God go I.”
Twice a year, local social services and homeless agencies conduct a count of people who meet the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) definition for being homeless. These include people who are living in places not intended as permanent shelter, such as tents and vehicles. Last January, six such individuals in the county fell into that category, down from 12 the year before.
“I’m sure there are more out there, but those are the ones we found,” said Brenda Sampe, integrated intake supervisor with the Chesterfield-Colonial Heights Department of Social Services.
Annually, about 7 to 8 percent of the region’s homeless, as defined by HUD, live in Chesterfield. (More than half are in Richmond.)
Statewide, the numbers of people meeting HUD’s definition for homelessness have declined by 22.9 percent since 2010 thanks in part to enhanced efforts to rehome military veterans and families.
But these numbers do not tell the full story. Those who live in motels/hotels or are temporarily living with family or friends don’t meet HUD’s definition for homelessness and are much harder to track.
Statistics from Chesterfield County Public Schools gives insight into how widespread the problem may be. Last November, 414 county students were homeless as defined by the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. But that number is probably higher since McKinney-Vento only includes students who have been identified by school officials as homeless.
McKinney-Vento’s definition of homeless is much broader than HUD’s. It includes those without traditional shelter but also extends to families who are sharing housing with family or friends (also known as “doubling up”) and those living in motels or hotels.
Lack of affordable housing is the biggest challenge for the county’s homeless.
“There’s a need for affordable housing,” said Kelly King Horne, executive director of Homeward, the planning and coordinating organization for homeless services in the region. “Rents are too high for someone who is on disability or working minimum wage or not quite working full time. It’s mostly that disconnect between wages and what’s affordable.”
Lack of public transportation is another issue.
“To live in Chesterfield, you need a car,” Horne said. “If you don’t have a car, it limits your options and accessibility to services and the ability to get employment.”
There’s a disconnect between where jobs are available and where people in poverty actually live.
Virginia made national news in November 2015 when it became the first state in the nation to functionally end veteran homelessness. (“Functionally ending homelessness” means that homelessness is rare, brief and nonrecurring.
It doesn’t mean there are no homeless, but that there are robust resources in place to respond to the crisis of homelessness as it arises.)
The state is now working to functionally end chronic homelessness among all Virginians by the end of 2017.
“We’re doing a better job with veteran homelessness because there are federal resources for housing, and we are doing a better job of serving homeless families. I expect the numbers to be positive there,” Horne said.
“Where we haven’t made as much progress is single adults who really need services like substance abuse or mental health, or they might need to be connected with employment.”
The region’s government and nonprofit partners are working harder to streamline available resources to meet the 2017 goal.
“I think the services have been there, but in the last three or four years, we have been trying to … prioritize them,” said Karen O’Brien, chief operating officer of CARITAS, a Richmond-based nonprofit that provides temporary shelter for the area’s homeless. “I think it’s the coordination and using the resources in the right way. We’re still working hard to make sure we do that and do it well.”
For Dennis and Al, losing the bus line that used to run down Jefferson Davis has probably been the hardest. Dennis, who has hypothyroidism, used to take the bus to get medicine at VCU Medical Center. He was hit by a car on Route 10 two days after Christmas in 2014 and hasn’t really been the same since.
“I managed to get my legs out the way – but I hit the windshield,” he says. The driver was drunk and didn’t have his headlights on, Dennis says, and he took out the windshield.
Somehow, he walked away with no broken bones.
In the cold of the season’s first winter storm, though, he’s really not so sure about the bones. “I don’t know. They say that, but I can still hear them rattling around,” he says. “The guys have been calling me half-dead ever since.”
Editor Scott Bass contributed to this story.