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In Advance of Big Bike Race, a Homeless Shuffle at Kanawha Plaza



Homeless residents of Kanawha Plaza say they’ve found a new place to sleep while city officials prepare to renovate the crumbling downtown park.

“We’ll be right there on the sidewalk,” said an older man in a sleeping bag, pointing to the public walkway directly adjacent to the plaza. The man declined to give his name.

On a recent rainy night, four men were in the park, taking shelter under a pedestrian bridge that connects the Dominion Resources headquarters building with the square. The area has fallen into disrepair in recent years despite its proximity to some of the city’s biggest corporations.

The men said police allow them under the pedestrian bridge during foul weather, but authorities are cracking down on camping in the park.

Earlier in the night, Deborah Gardner, the city’s deputy chief administrative officer for health and human services, told City Council about preliminary plans to overhaul the plaza, which is built over the Downtown Expressway.

The city wants to replace the park’s fountain, which is in especially bad shape, and add a splash pad, stage and sculpture garden. The plan envisions replacing grass with artificial turf, though staffers in the city Planning Department have taken issue with that particular detail. The city also plans to increase security and police patrols.

The work is expected to cost $3 million. Of that, the city will cover $1.5 million, with hopes of raising the rest from corporations located around the park. Gardner said the city plans to complete the renovation this summer before it serves as host of the 2015 World Road Cycling Championships.

Gardner also outlined the city’s effort to move residents who have made the park their home. She said the effort has been largely successful, though two remained — but only because they chose to stay. The 2010 U. S. Census counted 16 people living in the park.

The four men in the park on that rainy night said they’d already been filled in on the city’s plan for the space by surveyors and architects working on the plans.

“We told them we’ll be out of the way during construction,” one said.

But they had no plans to move into shelters, which they described as overcrowded, unappealing and dehumanizing. “Yeah, I could find someplace else to go,” one said, “but I’d rather be here than there. I just don’t want them to stick their finger up my ass, asking the same 20 questions everywhere I go.”

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