Having lived in Church Hill for 14 years, Richmond City Health Director Danny Avula is aware of the market realities of gentrification.
He recently lost a neighbor of 10 years who was priced out.
But something else that Avula understands is how deeply your neighborhood affects your health. Where you live in Richmond influences how long you live, studies have shown.
"What we did by creating concentrations of poverty with public housing was not good for anybody — not for the people who live there, not for Richmond as a whole," he says. "Things like the community you live in, the safety of your neighborhood, the stability of the family, really drive health outcomes."
Local government must do better to create incentives to develop affordable, mixed-income housing, Avula says. He's working with Mayor Levar Stoney's Housing Task Force to find new programs for developers.
The Richmond City Health District also is participating in a new campaign for National Health Week, which runs April 2-8, called the Power of Home. It brings together 25 organizations across the city to fight stereotypes and false narratives that plague those who live in low-resource communities.
Style worked with the campaign's organizers to publish the five letters on the following pages. Three are from residents in Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority communities. From their words come insight into their neighborhoods, hopes and dreams.
The ultimate goal of the campaign is to elevate the conversation around policy and find the political will to implement mixed-income housing programs, Avula says. For example, tax abatement being used as a developer incentive, as it is for people rehabbing homes.
"We've got to create more socio-economically integrated communities and learn to value people not like [ourselves]," Avula says. "As we start to think and talk about safe and stable housing, those are the things that are going to change health and well-being."
But first, he says, people need to embrace diverse and inclusive communities.
Paying attention to their stories helps. — Brent Baldwin
- Scott Elmquist
Zoquan Witcher, 17
Junior, Franklin Military Academy
Hillside Court Resident
My name is Zoquan Witcher. I moved to Hillside Court from Henrico with my mother and brother and three sisters when I was in the fourth grade. I'm a junior at Franklin Military Academy now, where I sing in the a cappella chorus, FM Stereo. I work at KFC on nights and weekends, about 40 hours a week.
I didn't want to live in Hillside at first. I didn't want to go to a new school and meet new people. I didn't want to be bothered with anyone. It took me a week or two even to get outside and see what Hillside was like. It was summer, and there were 100 people out here, everyone having fun, playing music, cooking out. It was different from what I knew, and different from what I expected. After a while I got used to it, and learned to be a little more outgoing — Hillside is a good environment for that.
My brother is 13 and he and I share a room, which is OK. It can be chaotic with all of us living in one place — when we clash, we can stay mad at each other for a whole day, but our bond is always there, and we know it.
I pay my own phone bill and car insurance, and if my brother or sister need anything, they can ask me and I'll give it to them — money for a field trip, or just going to the store to get something. I never want them to feel like they have to go to anybody other than my mom or me if they need anything. Because I'm here and I work.
My mom is a security guard supervisor at Philip Morris. She works overnight, and we're home without her while we're sleeping. It was scary at first to be without her, but we got used to it. I was 14 when she started that job, and my youngest sister was 6 or 7. She was more scared than the rest of us, but I was there, so she was OK.
After high school, I'd like to go to Howard University to study radiology — I like technology and hands-on work. Howard is close to home, but I also want to be somewhere far. I know I'll have to work hard, but I'm working hard already. Hillside has helped with that. Living in public housing pushes you. It makes you want to achieve your goals. Out in the neighborhood, you see all the activities going on around, and you tell yourself: "You don't want to do that, Witcher. You don't want to fall down the wrong path. You want to be something in life."
My mother is working on a plan, so we may be moving by June. She wants my brother and sisters in a better neighborhood, better surroundings. It will be bittersweet to move — I've been here since elementary school, and I'm used to this neighborhood. But I don't want my younger siblings to think it's OK to do some of what they see out here. Hillside has been home for us, but I want my family to have every opportunity to be what they want to be in life.
- Scott Elmquist
Evelyn Mejia, 37
Former Low-Income Housing Resident
Has Bought a House in Pine Acres
All my life, my mother has been my mirror. Her great power is that she is servicial: Polite. Helpful. She smiles, she's positive, she doesn't see the bad face of the coin. I learned to be the same way. When you are servicial and have faith, you won't let yourself be defeated.
I came to Richmond in 2001 from Guatemala. … I had a friend from church who had come to Richmond who would call and tell us to come here. When I arrived, I lived in a house with all men, but they were so good to me — they helped me all the time and never disrespected me. We lived over near Walmsley, in Broad Rock, and I liked it — the people, the restaurants, the bread, the tamales. But sometimes life is harder if you stay in the same circle. We can say people are discriminating against us but we isolate ourselves too by not trying to connect outside our community.
My first job here was at Happy Mart on Hull Street. They hired me in the kitchen. At first they wanted me to make tortillas, but in Guatemala, we bought our tortillas at a grocery store like everybody else, so I had no idea what I was doing. … [Later] my sister was in Richmond, and we were sharing a room with other women, five of us sleeping in one big bed. I got into a relationship and got pregnant. Just before my daughter was born, my boyfriend and I broke up and my sister and I got our own place and cared for Paula together. It was very difficult, but I knew I needed to keep going to take care of Paula and help my mother and father back home.
My sister knew a man from El Salvador who told us we could make more money working in construction. I said yes right away. I worked in Church Hill cleaning a construction site for a year. That was where I met my husband, too. Later, I started working at a dentist's office at night. I worked construction from 7-4 and in the dentist's office from 5-9. In between, I would run up the highway through the toll to take Paulita from the babysitter to her grandmother's and show up at work, red-faced (maybe smelling sometimes!). But the doctor was Colombian and so nice and understanding. When it was slow, she would teach me everything.
By the time I got pregnant with my second daughter, Lila, I was with my husband and I finally felt so secure and happy. My husband started his own painting and Sheetrock company. Then my third daughter, Valentina, was born with a heart defect and Down syndrome. We had a very challenging first two years. She needed two heart surgeries, but we prayed a lot and made it through. We were grateful we had Medicaid to help with all the expenses. Now she's so healthy, and she is the love of our lives. She inspires everybody and unifies us as a family.
I have worked so hard for the good life I have here. I see the same determination in my oldest daughter. She saw all my struggles with Valentina in the [hospital] and now she wants to be a neonatal doctor or a heart doctor. She is servicial and strong, like my mother, and like me.
- Scott Elmquist
Nancy Ward, 74
Creighton Court Tenant Council Member
Creighton Court Resident
I've lived in Creighton Court for 45 years. I was 23 when I came here, and I'm 74 now.
I left for a few years once my kids were grown, but then I came back. Soon, I'll be moving out for good. Creighton will be gone and we'll all have to move. I started meeting with a transition coach last year, Ms. Patterson, and I like her a lot. I like having someone I can talk to about what's going to happen. I'll go to a building that is just for seniors, but they haven't told us yet when we're leaving.
The first time I came to Creighton back in the '60s, I was staying with my four kids at my parents' house. When I moved out here, it was fine. A lot of people were working out here. You went to work, you came home, and you didn't have the problems we have now. Everybody looked out for everybody. Even the kids. Things changed when younger children started having children, but when I came here, it was nice.
I think more of the families out here could use one-on-one support. They need someone to listen to what's really happening, and bring attention to what could be different. For things to get better out here, we need participation from the younger parents. We went to PTA meetings when my kids were small. Kids had programs with the police academy after school, and the police would drive kids home after. I had my kids in football, basketball and tennis. I worked at Carolina Barbecue as a cook for years, and I volunteered for 30 years at Woodville Elementary off and on, all through the time my kids and grandkids were there. You have to do for yourself. I can't depend on people to do for mine.
I used to laugh all the time. People would get upset when they have been selected to move to Creighton and say — they gave me Creighton! I'd say: "Sweetheart, let me tell you how it works. When they knock at your door, you don't have no butter. You don't have no sugar. You don't have no coffee. You don't have no problems. They're going to talk about you if you do give it to them, and talk about you if you don't." I share with the people who mean something to me, and I don't bother with anyone else.
But to be honest with you, I do get a lot of respect out here. If I'm walking up the street and anybody cusses or says something bad, one of the boys says, "Don't you see Miss Nancy?" And the other one says, "Oh, Miss Nancy, I'm so sorry." I might not like what I see all the time, but they do respect me.
I have three children living, and 16 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. I watch my grandbabies during the day. One of my sons lives in Georgia but my daughter works at MCV and my son works at John Marshall, so I see my family a lot. I enjoy helping in any way I can. When I'm called on, if I'm not watching my great-grandbabies, I help.
People out here have helped me, too. Five years ago, I had both my breasts taken off, and the women of the tenant council were really good, coming to see me, asking if I needed anything, and other people out here, too. We care about each other. A lot of my friends in Creighton will go to the senior building too. Even some people who have left Creighton and moved other places want to come back when the new building is up.
I tell a lot of people out here — you're the one who decides how you live. When we get to the new building, I'll find my place just like I have here. It will be different, but I'm working with Ms. Patterson, and I'll be ready when it's time to leave for good.
- Scott Elmquist
Esperanza Vasquezz Hernandez, 37
Southwood Apartment Community Resident
Translated by Shanteny Jackson and transcribed by Tara Dacey
I came here from Guerrero, Mexico, when I was 23 or 24. In Guerrero I suffered a lot. I had few clothes and no shoes. A lot of people would go to the next state, Sinaloa, to work picking tomatoes and cucumbers. I tried but it wasn't for me. I decided to find work in the U.S., but by then I had a baby. I wanted to bring her with me, but she couldn't come. I left her with my parents and told them I would bring her when she was older. When she was old enough, she didn't want to come. She's 19 now and I have only seen her once since I left.
My first apartment in Richmond was in Boushall. That's where I met my children's father, who was from Mexico too. I thought I would be with him forever but it didn't happen. When my oldest child was born, he began drinking a lot, and we fought. I worked for a cigarette company until my twins were born, but after they arrived I couldn't work anymore.
My husband hit me a lot and was very jealous. I had no family here, and I would ask him for $5 to call Guerrero, and he wouldn't give it to me. I had to sit down and think about my choices, and how I was going to get through.
I knew a woman from my old job who was also from Mexico. She asked why I stayed with my husband, and I said I was scared he would take my children. She told me: It won't happen. We can help you. This woman was always helping people — going with them to court, giving them a ride, talking with them about their troubles. She told me: If you leave him, one day you will be a better woman. I started to call the police when he was hurting me, and the police wanted to help. I figured out how to get help from the government, too. All the help I received gave me strength, and finally I left my husband for good.
I had to go back to work once he was gone, but by then my brother had come to Richmond. We would work opposite shifts and he would watch my children while I bused tables at a restaurant. I haven't made many friends in the U.S. because it's hard to know who I can trust. Today I keep my household by myself, and I give all my love to my children. I tell my children: I will always work, and I will always come home. I know I am tired, and I'm sorry. We don't have much extra money, but my children understand.
I am very proud of my children. I can't read in Spanish or English, and I still can't speak English. I get texts on my phone and my son and daughters have to read them to me because I don't understand. But we like living in Southwood. We can come and go safely. There is peace here.
When I think about the future, my dreams are for my children, but I saved some money and bought land in Guerrero for myself. I don't need a man for any of this. I can care for my heart. I'm waiting for my grandkids, too, for my legacy.
I have an image of myself as a happy grandmother, and those grandkids will probably ask me, "Why don't you get married?" and I will laugh.
- Scott Elmquist
Patrice Shelton, 44
Hillside Court Tenant Council President
Community Health Worker, Hillside Court Resource Center
Some residents come to Hillside Court because they have to. Some come because they weren't taught differently. Some come for a stepping stone, and then they go on. I came eight years ago as a stepping stone. My kids were in eighth and 12th grade, and I was between jobs. It was going to be: get in, get a job, and leave out. Then I ended up getting severe arthritis and couldn't do a lot of standing. Leaving Hillside right away wasn't what God wanted for me.
I joined some groups in Hillside just to get out of the house, but those groups were really working to connect the community. I started out with Embrace Richmond and AmeriCorps and then founded a nonprofit, the Hillside Court Partnership, even though I had never done anything like that before. So many organizations come into Hillside and then leave, but my thing has always been to follow through. Once I get started, we keep going until we make it happen, and we make sure the community has ownership.
In 2013, the Hillside boys who played football came to me and said: "Miss Patrice — why we gotta go play at Blackwell and Bellemeade? Why we can't play for Hillside?" So that was my thing then — to make sure they could play for Hillside. The first team we had was the Soldiers. The kids came up with the name. They were underdogs going in, with so many obstacles from living out here. They said if they could get through those things, they were Soldiers.
We had coaches from the community who had never coached before. The kids had whole seasons where they never won a game and whole games where they never scored at all — but they kept coming back. That's a soldier. You stay committed. You keep fighting no matter what.
There has been so much negativity tied to Hillside in the past, and to public housing in general. Our sports teams have given Hillside a real positive to focus on — parents, brothers, uncles and neighbors, some who have done bad but have fixed their lives, stepping up and trying to teach kids self-control and self-worth. I gave those things to my own kids, and now I am working to make it possible for these kids. That's what it is to be part of a community.
People like to stereotype public housing residents, but we're not all criminals or dropouts or gangbangers. We're not all utilized for baby-making.
Like most places, Hillside is a work in progress. Investments take time. People want to drop off donations, but we'd rather see them come and volunteer. Be a listening ear. Coach a team or lead a group. Bring a class here. Don't assume people in public housing aren't interested.
I'm trying to get my community to widen their thoughts, widen their dreams, and know their rights as residents and as humans. I want people in Hillside to know that their voice, with numbers, can take them far and create change.
I work every day to support Hillside, and I am proud to be a part of this community. S
If you have questions, comments or ideas about creating diverse and compassionate communities, email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact City Council members and ask them to consider intentionally designed diverse communities as part of the solution toward better health and better lives for all.