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Their Day in Paradise

To understand the plight of the homeless, a gaggle of white collars and legislators trade in their suits and SUVs for rags and shopping carts.

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The smell of stale sweat and sleep hang heavy in the air in the packed lobby of the Conrad Center on Oliver Hill Way. About 20 men sit slumped shoulder-to-shoulder in hard-backed plastic chairs.

Some are still asleep despite the rude 7 a.m. glare of the room's fluorescent lighting. In a corner, one gaunt man with large, hollow eyes that sit stark against his dark complexion sits, chin in hand, staring into space with blank resignation. No one talks. No one seems to move.

These are some of the lucky ones among Richmond's homeless on this particular Thursday. They've arrived in time for the center's hot meal, complete with scrambled eggs, toast, Danish, grits, sausage and coffee.

But not yet. The kitchen is still preparing for today's diners; for those who sit here in stony silence, but also for 22 very special community guests.

The room's institutional two-toned green cinderblock walls do little to inspire lively conversation -- they're hung with drab inspirational posters and large, jarringly bright oil-color paintings depicting extreme close-ups of food.

Minutes tick by and the doors of the facility, operated by the Freedom House charity organization, open to greet a new rush of people. These new arrivals aren't like the mass of broken, exhausted humanity already waiting. Unlike the group already here, these people come in shiny new cars and SUVs. None slept outside last night.

Their excited, giddy chatter bounces off the walls, though the resigned men already here hardly notice.

The 20-plus new arrivals come from various walks of life. A Republican state legislator, a former staffer for Gov. Doug Wilder, a bevy of Altria employees. Others include bank employees, advocacy or lobbying group representatives, educators and clergy members.
They all seem sincere in their desire to understand the plight of the homeless. What most of them will find is a city rife with disparate services and a tangled bureaucratic net.

“I always feel guilty driving to work seeing the homeless sleeping in my parking deck,” Sheila Sheppard, a staffer with the Partnership for Smarter Growth, tells the group.

All have agreed to spend a day literally walking in their shoes, a first-of-its-kind city-wide homeless simulation event run by Homeward. But it's a shoe that fits awkwardly for most participants.

“My wife said to just make sure you're not going into any bad neighborhoods,” jokes Hanover Delegate Chris Peace over bites of breakfast, drawing nervous laughter.

Nearby, less fortunate diners have little choice about the neighborhoods they walk. And understanding their stories -- the varied paths that led them to lives on the street -- will be difficult for ones who will drive away tonight with memories.

“I chose to be in the street,” explains Dennis, a homeless man who sits in one of the intake lobby's chairs, closed doors separating him and his fellow homeless from the simulation participants getting their final briefing. “I put it like this -- I get $674 a month [in disability]. If I get me a room, that will take all my check. I'm waiting for Section 8 [housing], but they told me it'll be December.”

An hour later, Homeward is dropping its guinea pig simulation participants off in teams of three at homeless haunts throughout the city. Each participant has been given an adopted persona, a bus pass and $5. Some carry the trappings of their adopted life: crutches, plastic bags filled with belongings, pregnancy simulating belly-packs.

“This is going to be good,” says Quelina Jones (she's “Ronnie” today), an Altria employee. She's with a team with two other women, all Altria employees, all hoping to get a better sense of the tragedy so many of us see but ignore every day. Jones can't ignore it like some. “My sister was homeless -- she has four kids, she used drugs, she just doesn't make wise choices,” Jones says.

And trying to make choices for that sister is hard: When Jones does too much or takes her in to her own home, the sister takes advantage: “You're not helping her -- I got her a job and she got fired. She's one I've got to love from a distance.”

That distance narrows at the doorway of the YWCA on Fourth Street. In the imposing white-walled lobby, the three women encounter their first roadblock of the day — one common and well-known to homeless women in trouble: the bored receptionist.

The woman takes their information, but does little to assist them. When one asks her to use the phone, she directs them to a complicated-looking handset in a nearby room and offers no help. It's not so complicated after all; the phone doesn't work.

For about 30 frustration-filled minutes the women try to figure out the bureaucratic red tape. Jones grimaces.

The Richmond YWCA sheltered 250 women and children last year, mostly fleeing violent husbands or boyfriends. They're sheltered in a half-dozen confidential safe houses around town until they can be transitioned to a safe future -- sometimes in a new town with a whole new identity.

The YWCA's daunting intake bureaucracy, though not at its shining best this morning, is necessary in a way, says Becky Lee, chief program officer at the YWCA. “I think that sometimes we get a little bit of a bad rap.”

That's because of the Y's screening process, a system that prioritizes according to the level or existence of eminent danger a woman faces.

“We triage and that doesn't always sit well with everyone,” Lee says. “But there isn't an endless pot of money.”

Outside, the Altria women size up their experience.

“Wow, I felt like she wanted us to leave,” says Cate Sullivan (“Denise” in her homeless guise).
“I was very uncomfortable,” says Judie Overcash, who is “Sharon” for the day and serves as chairwoman of Altria's employee community charity fund. She spent her time on a crisis phone line seeking services. “I can't imagine going through a stressful time of my life and I have to just bear my soul to a telephone to get some help.”

The group walks up Fourth Street in search of their next destination, the Daily Planet. They ask a man with a grocery cart full of cans for directions -- they get his life story.

“I pick up cans just to have something to be doing,” says Robert Bell, a Vietnam veteran who's not homeless by strict definition. He owns a home left to him by his parents. He worked hard all his life as a brick mason. Now health issues have left him out of work and faced with choices he shouldn't have to make.

“I refuse to sell my property,” says Bell, straightening with pride. Social workers have encouraged him to divest himself of the house and his other assets in order to qualify for government medical assistance. They want him to become homeless -- helpless -- in order to be helped.

“I've got mine and I ain't going to get no more,” Bell says. He says he doesn't panhandle, instead relying on aluminum recycling for a meager income. “To me it's a job. I'm helping myself and helping the city, but the city doesn't have the sense to see it.”

Walking away, the three simulation participants have plenty to think about.

“A part of me feels so close to this situation,” says Jones. “I could be one of these people.”
At the Daily Planet, the three pick up information on available health services.

Outside, a regular client of the facility explains daily reality seeking help here.

“When this place started, it was helping us,” says “Derrick”, a tall former laborer now disabled by a crumbling spine. He credits the center's medical services, but says other services have lost sight of the goal. “Now it's just referring us to people who are referring us to people who are referring us to people. Basically it's a United Way circle -- they send you in a circle to get nowhere.”

The women leave in search of lunch -- a walk of about a dozen blocks to St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Grace Street.

On the way, they meet a darker side of poverty.

“Yo! Can I get some change?” shouts a man who crosses against traffic to reach the walkers. His Obama ball cap sits at an odd angle on his head. “I'm hungry!”

Nobody has more than the $5 in their pocket -- necessary for later bus trips.

“We have a list of places you can go for services,” offers Sullivan, eliciting only a belligerent shrug from the man. “Gimme some smokes,” he says, voice rising.

Getting nothing, he stomps away disgusted.

“He didn't really want food,” says a shocked Jones, slowly absorbing. It's people like him, she realizes, that give others in tough times a bad name and discourage charity. “It breaks my heart there are people who are scamming. There are other people who need the help.”

Walking behind the others, the third in the group, Judie Overcash is lost in thought. Her own life could easily have put her more permanently in the shoes she's wearing today.

As a child, she remembers cold Ohio nights spent packed with her family in a car after her parents lost their jobs and eventually their home.

“It was cold, it was winter -- scary,” says Overcash, who worked her way up to a very comfortable 30-year career with Altria. “We visited friends in the daytime. You didn't really think how uncomfortable it was, five people sleeping in a car. You're thinking is it going to end? Is someone going to help us? There's guilt, too, for a child.”

A stop before lunch at Home Again, a housing transition service on East Main, is another eye opener.

The facility provides temporary, emergency housing to nearly 30 women and children. The close quarters are friendly -- women help each other caring for one another's children -- but they're still cramped. Communicable diseases like colds, flu or other viruses are a problem, as are parasites. Not to mention bedbugs.

Residents here trying to transition to self-sufficiency face insurmountable obstacles that don't even occur to the average Richmonder. Getting or keeping a job is hard when the daily commute takes as much time as an interstate trip.

“This is the only city I've ever lived in where the bus runs are based on class,” says Rebecca Wareham, a Home Again case manager who watches women fall down every day. Low-wage jobs at surrounding malls and businesses often aren't on bus lines. If they are, the lines run odd schedules. 

Nearly to the church for lunch, the three women take stock of their day's accomplishments: Nothing.

“The way it looks, my kids are going to be staying with my drunk mom tonight,” Overcash says, referring to her character's two children. “I haven't made any progress.”

Lunch is a break, but it's no picnic.

“Fucking son of a bitch!” a tousled-looking man with ruddy, sun-baked skin storms out of the intake entrance to the repurposed church auditorium. The half-hour wait didn't sit well with him. He's followed by a mindful Richmond police officer.

Inside, the swirling crowd of tired faces align long, folding cafeteria tables with trays of hot food in front of them. A man waiting his turn for lunch plunks on a piano on the auditorium stage.

Back outside, Richard Walls checks his green meal ticket. “I'm number 165,” he says, through a wide grin of slightly neglected teeth that aren't anywhere near as white as the Circuit City employee T-shirt he wears.

Also out of work due to a disability -- he's been having seizures caused by substance abuse -- Walls is not quite homeless either. He stays in a garden shed behind a friend's house in the Oregon Hill neighborhood where he grew up.

“That's just reality,” he says. “I've got a hut, it's mine. It's got a roof. It's better than sleeping on the street.”

Inside, lunch is winding down. Sheila Sheppard with the smart growth group sits, trying to process what she's seen with her teammates. What she's seen is people hurting and a system with good resources but without the organization or motivation to provide any meaningful leg up.

“There's an environment of cynicism and a belief that each individual has to protect themselves,” she says, not talking about the people on the street, but instead about the government and volunteer agencies that exist to help. “I try to imagine the way I was treated yesterday when I got my hair done and then today when I asked my government for help.”

“We have to have an environment where we believe in the person,” Sheppard says.
If Sheppard is disillusioned by her experience, she's certainly not alone. For many, disillusionment has given way to cynical observation.

One man who was at the Conrad Center for breakfast when the simulation participants arrived six hours earlier walks up to a few participants gathered against the wall at St. Paul's. He looks both ways conspiratorially before filling them in on the tasty lie he -- and more importantly they -- consumed at breakfast. Eggs and sausage and hot coffee? If they really want to know what it's like to be homeless, they should know that isn't the usual fare.

“Thursdays are cold cereal days,” he says.

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