Food Programs Offer ‘HOPE’ for Homeless

The sun is sweltering, and beads of sweat trickle down people’s faces as they stagger into the park. Many are exhausted from their long walk here. Some sit under trees for shade with plastic bags holding their belongings. They’re tired and hungry, eagerly awaiting what may be one of the few meals they will get this week.

Editor’s note: The following feature is the latest in a seven-part series on homelessness in Richmond written by students taking part in “Reporting for Print and Web,” an undergraduate journalism course led by by Jeff South, Associate Professor at VCU’s School of Mass Communications. Check back weekly for future installments.

The sun is sweltering, and beads of sweat trickle down people’s faces as they stagger into the park. Many are exhausted from their long walk here. Some sit under trees for shade with plastic bags holding their belongings. They’re tired and hungry, eagerly awaiting what may be one of the few meals they will get this week.

Every Sunday, homeless or destitute individuals gather at Monroe Park, in the heart of VCU’s main campus, to receive a meal from local nonprofit organizations.

Jennifer Simpson is a co-founder of Arms Wide Open, a two-person charity that hands out food at Monroe Park. She says people need to come to the park on Sundays to understand what it’s like to be homeless.

“Then you’re going to see what these people are about and what they really need,” Simpson said.

Arms Wide Open joins H.O.P.E Worldwide Ministries and Food Not Bombs in offering food to the homeless on Sunday afternoons. While the other two groups serve meals, Arms Wide Open distributes food to go, such as loaves of bread and other baked goods.

On a recent Sunday, about 200 people lined up to receive a meal. The groups have noticed an increase in the number of people in need. Volunteers cite the economy as a reason.

“There’s a definite increase,” said Sylvia Ross-Smith of H.O.P.E. Worldwide Ministries. “People are getting put out of their homes, and the shelters are overloaded. Most of the churches have had to cut back the number of meals they serve to two or three times a week, because of having such a low budget.”

H.O.P.E. Worldwide Ministries has been feeding the homeless in Monroe Park for about 20 years. The group gives out not only food but also clothes, books and occasionally toiletries such as soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes. The H.O.P.E. volunteers keep their mission statement in mind as they work to collect, prepare and serve the food.

“None of God’s people go hungry,” Ross-Smith said.

Food Not Bombs has a more political inspiration – that food is a right, not a privilege.

The group’s Richmond chapter was founded in 1994. Food Not Bombs receives donations from several Richmond businesses that contribute food that has just reached its “sell by” date, as well as other unsellable but still edible food.

“Without the generous donations of Richmond businesses, we would not be able to function,” said Mo Karn, the chief organizer of Food Not Bombs.

In the past 15 years of providing meals, Food Not Bombs has missed only two Sundays.

The group believes that poverty is violence and that when the government spends money on bombs instead of food, it forces people to go hungry.

W.B. Braxton-Bantu is a regular at Monroe Park. He faces the day-to-day struggle of trying to find a full-time job as well as housing, and he depends on the feeding programs for a Sunday meal.

“Being out on the streets is like you’re in a horror movie,” Braxton-Bantu said.

Braxton-Bantu takes advantage of the local homeless organizations, such as the Daily Planet, in order to fulfill his basic needs. However, finding transportation to the different organizations and charities is a challenge.

Braxton-Bantu heads up the homeless group ASWAN Millennium-Future Present. The name stands for a society without a name for people without a home. The group has regular meetings at the Legal Aid Justice Center, 123 E. Broad St.

ASWAN members say that their civil rights have been violated by laws and policies directed against homeless people. Braxton-Bantu said that in October, the group may file a lawsuit to challenge panhandling laws, limits on service providers and other policies.

Homeless people and service providers also have chafed at efforts over the years to move the feeding programs from Monroe Park.

“It’s been one of those things that has been in the background for years and years. Whether it was through the city wanting all of the feeding programs out of the park, or VCU specifically wanting the feeding programs out of the park,” Karn said. “I haven’t heard anything recently that there is anything in the works to make that happen.”

The feeding programs depend entirely on donations and are always looking for assistance with food, clothing and other necessities. Volunteers are also welcome. For more information, contact:

Mo Karn of Food Not Bombs at 804-300-0023
H.O.P.E. Worldwide Ministries at 804-225-8805
Jeffrey McCann of Arms Wide Open at 804-380-6318

What’s the Future for Monroe Park?

Monroe Park has been the center of controversy as feeding programs continue to give the homeless meals there and the city of Richmond works to renovate the park.

The Monroe Park Master Plan was adopted in February 2008 as the blueprint for the improvement of the park. The work depends on future funding and would be complete in four to five years.

“They are part of the city’s CIP – Capital Improvement Program,” said Brian Ohlinger, VCU’s associate vice president for facilities management and a member of the Monroe Park Advisory Council.

A large population of homeless individuals congregates around Monroe Park. Ohlinger said he believes this is partly because the park is near the Daily Planet, which provides health care and other services for the homeless, and because charitable groups serve meals in the park on Sundays.

According to Ohlinger, government officials hope to relocate the homeless and the Monroe Park feeding programs to the Conrad Center, a homeless assistance program on the city’s east side.

Mo Karn of Food Not Bombs is aware of the controversy over the feeding programs in Monroe Park, but she doesn’t feel relocation is on the horizon.

“I think the reality of it is that that couldn’t happen, because there are too many people who need food and a park is a public place,” Karn said.

“It just wouldn’t make any sense. And there are enough folks who depend on Food Not Bombs and other feeding programs that happen in Monroe Park that I’m pretty sure there would be a big enough outrage that it wouldn’t really happen.”

Previous features in this series:

All articles and photos featured in this series are being published with the permission of Jeffrey South, Associate Professor, School of Mass Communications, Virginia Commonwealth University.

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Nicole Fisher

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