City Councilman Charles Samuels wants to help Richmond's homeless. They're the focus of his September constituent newsletter, which plugs top-10 lists of homeless assistance groups and ways to end homelessness.
But Samuels also wants to help his district's Monroe Park, the city's oldest, a 9-acre swathe of green at the heart of Virginia Commonwealth University's academic campus scheduled for a $6.2 million renovation. And for Samuels, the homeless and Monroe Park are a troublesome mix during the park's on-site food donations.
“Monroe Park has no working bathrooms, no drinking water, and no shelter,” Samuels writes in his September newsletter. He also raises concerns about the quality of the food being consumed by homeless people there. “There is no legal means to control the preparation of the food being distributed for consumption nor the handling and storage which can cause many gastro-intestinal illnesses,” Samuels writes, criticizing weekly handouts for leaving garbage and “buses dropping off homeless people.”
Samuels proclaims the park's conditions “unsanitary and unsafe for everyone,” and that “random feeding programs in the park and on the street facilitates homelessness.”
Not so, says Mo Karn, a local anarchist and member of Food Not Bombs, which has cooked Sunday meals for Monroe Park dwellers since 1994. Karn says Samuels is trying to push out Monroe Park's homeless and the groups that serve them, accusing the councilman of “straight-up lying” in his characterization of park facilities.
Fiery posts on the blog of the Wingnut Anarchist Collective, a local group that works with Food Not Bombs, lampoon Samuels' newsletter, criticize the park's renovation plans and hype a video investigation apparently revealing working toilets, water fountains and sinks.
“The only thing I can say is that the buck stops with me,” Samuels writes in an e-mail to Style Weekly, acknowledging some factual missteps. “We did fact-check that statement & based on another city department's response believed it to be true.”
Samuels says he merely wanted to alert the public that the park was closing for renovations and that there are alternatives available in the interim.
That's how Alice Massie, chairwoman of the city-appointed Monroe Park Advisory Council, sees it. “Nobody is telling Food Not Bombs they can't feed,” she says. Massie defends Samuels' newsletter and questions the need for feedings at the park. There are other places to go for food donations, she says, such as the East End's Conrad Center.
Carrie Jenkins, association manager of the Prestwould Condominiums on West Franklin Street, says a group of residents has met with Samuels “regarding the lack of regulation of feeding programs in the park, and we have been pleased with his response thus far.”
Karn and the Wingnut group demand that at least 25 percent of the park be “available to the public at all times during construction.”
“Construction could be phased but [if] construction [were] phased, each phase would exponentially double the cost of construction,” Massie says, objecting to any increase in cost just “to accommodate their feeding.”