Herd of Turtles

They call themselves the “herd of turtles” – three women in their 40s, moving slowly across Richmond with their belongings on their backs. They are homeless, food-less and car-less. That is a tough situation in Richmond, where services for the homeless are scattered far and wide, and shelters can’t take in everybody who needs help.

Editor’s note: The following feature is the second 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.

They call themselves the “herd of turtles” – three women in their 40s, moving slowly across Richmond with their belongings on their backs.

They are homeless, food-less and car-less. That is a tough situation in Richmond, where services for the homeless are scattered far and wide, and shelters can’t take in everybody who needs help.

We learned that by joining the “herd” on a recent Tuesday. We set out on foot for an all-day homeless experience with only $5 and identification.

Our six-mile journey took us from CARITAS, a charity responsible for case management and other services; to the Conrad Center, where homeless people can check on shelter space for that night; to the Daily Planet, which provides health care, mail services, laundry and showers; and back to CARITAS. The route we took is the same followed by many of the CARITAS clients, according to case manager Roslyn James.

We left on foot around 8:30 a.m. from the Fan towards CARITAS, off Chamberlayne Parkway.

We spoke to Tara Kantner, a case manager, about where we should go to find food and shelter. We were told that our first stop should be Central Intake at the Conrad Center to see if any beds were available that night.

Kantner said it may be unsafe to walk the route her clients take; she advised us to drive. She reminded us that we’d be passing through some rough neighborhoods, but it didn’t deter us. We were on our way by 10 a.m.

Gilpin Court was one of those neighborhoods. The housing projects, operated by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, are infamous in Richmond for crime. However, we cautiously treaded through without incident. We stopped momentarily to ride a plastic dinosaur – the only ride on the complex’s desolate playground.

Two miles later – breaking only for water – we arrived at the Conrad Center, across from the Richmond City Jail, which houses Central Intake. This program, run by Commonwealth Catholic Charities, provides the homeless with referrals to various services.

It was 11 a.m. and 91 degrees. We sat for a few minutes in the waiting area for Carla Turnage to meet with us. She told us all the beds, including standby beds, were taken.

People are turned down daily at the Conrad Center because of a shortage of facilities. Although the center is open until 4 p.m., beds are almost always full by noon if not sooner.

“We have some people that come in from elsewhere and are pretty demanding. If we have a bed anywhere in the system, we fill it,” Turnage said.

Getting shelter is tough, especially during the summer when there are fewer beds. People must wake up very early in the morning to make it down to Central Intake in hopes of reserving a bed.

After our visit to the Conrad Center, we walked in search of somewhere to eat. Another mile away: the nearest McDonald’s.

We ordered off the dollar menu, treating our $3 purchase as if it were $3,000. Can we afford these French fries? Do I really need another four pieces of chicken nuggets?

People stared as sweat dripped off our raggedy clothes while we inhaled our first (and extremely small) meal of the day at 1 p.m.

We stayed for some time to take advantage of the air conditioning and public restrooms. We wouldn’t have been able to do this elsewhere, as we would not have been paying customers. Somehow, this rule seems to apply only to those who appear homeless. If you wear a suit and tie, you can use the restroom anywhere. If you appear dirty, then you are out of luck.

Next stop: the Daily Planet. We met three middle-aged women – Anita, Teri and Beverley – and spent the afternoon with them. All three had been up since 4:30 a.m. They have to walk miles in order to get to the services they need – even Teri, whose leg is in a cast.

If Teri were to miss an appointment – even though she has no transportation and a broken leg – she would be out of the program for 30 days. Lack of transportation is not considered an excuse at Central Intake.

The trio huddled on the side of the building. After approaching them, we found that they were eager to speak with us.

As Anita was telling us about her daughter in college, security forced us to leave the sidewalk. We insisted that we had every right to stand on public property; they claimed that a new rule was being imposed that day.

“I’ve never heard of that rule,” Anita laughed. “We were standing out here this morning.”

A VCU police officer later informed us that Daily Planet security had no legal right to remove us from the sidewalk unless we were blocking free passage, which we clearly were not.

We moved to Monroe Park to chat at length with our new friends.

“I came in [to a shelter] yesterday, so I’m locked in for [a few] days. But if I go there Friday and they have nowhere for me to stay, I have to go all the way to down to the Conrad Center. If they don’t have anywhere for me to stay, then I’m out,” Anita said.

Being homeless is relatively new to Anita, compared with Beverley and Teri who have been displaced for over a year.

“I’m 50. All I did was lose my job, then I lost my home, and now I’m here. It wasn’t a major thing. I didn’t do drugs. I didn’t drink. I didn’t do any of that. It just all happened at once,” Anita said.

Clients and agencies don’t always see eye to eye. Surprisingly, some agencies don’t either.

“One hand don’t know what the other hand’s doing up in there,” Beverley – always blunt and outspoken – said about the Daily Planet. Many others agreed, including workers of some partnering agencies.

Several people complained about the quality of service and strict rules at shelters. Some said that shelter employees kicked them to wake them up in the morning; that they were prohibited from spending the night with their spouses or significant others; and that they couldn’t display any public affection – or even hold hands in some instances.

Others say the biggest problem is a lack of resources and funding. This has prevented those who want and deserve help from receiving it.

“There is a shortage of services, but I will say that this organization tries damn hard to get people where they need to be,” Roslyn James said after welcoming us back to CARITAS that afternoon.

Teri, Beverley, and Anita all had places to stay when we met them. This could change any day. When they fall asleep in a rollaway cot tonight, they realize it’s not guaranteed they’ll be in that bed tomorrow.

“I lived my whole life waiting to die,” Teri said. “And now that I want to live, nobody will help me.”

To see more images of Dayne and Rebecca’s experience, check out their slideshow.

Previous installments 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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Dayne Kaufman

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