Close to home

The men and women of Emancipation Park speak out

Lorenzo Dickerson

In the center of Charlottesville is a park. A park that, lately, has seen its fair share of blood and spit, pepper spray and violence, tears and prayers. It sits in the city’s northeast quadrant and takes up a square block, sandwiched between First and Second streets to the west and east, Jefferson Street to the north and Market Street to the south. For nearly 93 years it was known as Lee Park. But for the last three months, officially at least, it’s been called Emancipation Park.

In its center is a towering statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, which the city earlier this year voted to remove. That decision was legally challenged and is currently being decided by a judge. For many in the city, this is what the park is: home to a statue that’s caused Charlottesville’s divisions to become more visible.

But for several dozen people, the park is also a home. It’s their living room, their dining room, their midday bedroom. It’s where they break bread and talk about surface-level affairs and the deeper meaning of life in the same breath. It’s where they smoke cigarettes and blunts, and sip out of brown bags. It’s where they read newspapers and take naps. Many of these people either are homeless or have been. It’s where they see Charlottesville—the prosperous city that ranks high on best-of tourist websites—pass by in front of their faces. It’s a front row seat to the deeper divisions of which the statue hints.

Many of these men and women were near the park on August 12—a day that will forever live in Charlottesville’s history. On July 8, when the Ku Klux Klan came to Justice Park, Tennessee and Sara, who are homeless, got married and held a barbecue just one block away from the KKK demonstration at the base of the Lee statue. These residents say they feel just as safe in the park now as before August 12, and that if anything, it’s changed life there for the better, because now there’s hope that the city will not ignore some of its most vulnerable.

The park opens at 6am. Less than a block away, The Haven day shelter opens every day at 7am and offers a bevy of services—showers and laundry, lockers and breakfast, computers and classes. It closes around noon, and shortly thereafter the park begins to fill up. Some head to the daily soup kitchen at a nearby church, returning to claim a bench for the day.

The park closes at 11pm. In the summer months, many of the city’s homeless sleep outside—downtown, in a makeshift camp in the woods or in a darkened portico nearby—at the Salvation Army or, if they’re lucky, on friends’ couches. And next month, Charlottesville’s overnight shelter—a rotating collective of more than 80 religious congregations known as People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry—will begin, which means arriving at The Haven at 5:30pm to score a place to sleep.

The library is also directly across the street. Some folks relax there on hot days, reading magazines, using the computers. The free bathrooms also are a boon. In the basement is the Downtown Job Center, which helps find people jobs. Across the street is a main bus stop, giving folks access to most parts of the city.

But finding work, housing and the wrap-around supports necessary to get off the street is often harder than it seems. A small team of staff at The Haven, PACEM and the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless works daily with the city to try and get services to these men and women. But not everybody wants help. Others are told to be patient, that it takes time.

Over the past two months, C-VILLE Weekly reporter Jordy Yager and photographer Lorenzo Dickerson have gotten to know nearly two dozen of these park residents. The following is an attempt to add their voices to the city’s larger conversation about statues, public spaces and equity. Most of people in the park are unemployed, or have low-paying jobs. They speak of struggle, of barriers and of being lost in a surrounding sea that toils and rises around them. As one park goer put it: “We’re a forgotten people.”

Martin. Photo by Lorenzo Dickerson

Martin

“I was living in Locust Grove, Orange County. And then on April 8, 2016, I had a stroke. I lost my job because of it. I was driving for Estes freight. It is what it is. They helicoptered me here to UVA. They gave me some rehab and then boom, dropped me off at the Salvation Army. I ended up losing my house. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I just don’t want to end up in jail. I don’t want any trouble. I don’t smoke marijuana, I don’t drink, I don’t pop pills. Right now, my only vice is cigarettes. Eventually I’m quitting them. I got $1.25 to my name. I’m not going to panhandle. I’ve been trying to get a part-time job, but I’ve got no identification and all that. It’s pretty tough. I got a photo of my license, that’s it. It costs money at DMV to get the license. I’m trying to get The Haven to help me out on that. Everything just takes forever. It’s pretty tough. I believe in God and all of that, but to be honest, I kind of lost my faith. It’s sad.

“I’ve been coming to the park since I got here four months ago. I go to The Haven in the morning, trying to get help. Nothing’s panning out, unfortunately. I come over here after I do the soup kitchen lunch to kill some time. At the Salvation Army, you’re not allowed back until 4pm. I’m temporarily staying there for now. I think I’ve got until the end of September until I’ll be in the streets, unfortunately. My biggest fear is the weather and my health. Once I have to get out of the Salvation Army and on the streets for real, I’m just going to perish. I’ll sleep under a bridge. That’s the fear. Supposedly, I’m on a waitlist for housing, but I keep hearing from folks at The Haven, ‘It takes time, it takes time.’ I live in fear, man. Every day I live in fear.

“The homeless are a forgotten people. That’s the sad truth. Everybody’s so quick to say, ‘Go get a job,’ and this and that. I had a job. I’ve worked for 40 years. I’ve never been homeless before, this is my first time. Yeah, my license is still good. Look at how I’m dressed, ripped pants. I scream ‘homeless.’

“Personally, I don’t think the statue should be moved. I don’t think the money should be spent—it should be spent on better things. What are you going to put there instead, a pond? It’s sad man. Help out the homeless. Open up some programs. Get us to work, man.”


Tennessee and Sara. Photo by Lorenzo Dickerson

Tennessee

Pictured with his wife, Sara

“Me and this woman got married in this park on July 8. We had more people here than the Klan did. I landed here about three years ago. Hell, I love it. I like the history. That was part of what drew me to it. Don’t tear my monument down. It’s not a monument, it’s just a statue. But I love all the controversy over an inanimate object, watching all these people go out and how it’s all over the news.

“It’s not about that statue. It’s about tourism. I asked these two hot chicks over here, from Vegas, ‘Why are you here? Why did you come to Charlottesville?’ The beach, I could see. Florida. Who comes to Charlottesville? They came because of that statue. The day after the KKK rally, I walked around and saw Texas, Connecticut, Florida license plates. I saw 26 different tags. Bad publicity’s better than no publicity, right? Every one of the hotel rooms was filled. I was there. It’s all about tourism. They love controversy.

“Y’all got any money? Who’s on the $1 bill? Lincoln’s probably the only one that didn’t own slaves, but I doubt that. The White House was probably full of them at that time. So everybody on that money was slave owners. Ain’t nobody throwing that shit away. Right?

“We’re homeless. You can get fed four times a day here on the streets. You got The Haven to take a shower and do laundry–show me another city that does that? If you get a sign that says ‘homeless’ and stand outside the pizza place, someone will get you a slice of pizza. Train kids hop trains to get here at certain times of the year, because this is their place. They go collect down at the mall, with the panhandling. The homeless housing options here are for veterans and the weak. If you’re going to die on the streets, they put you in something. Mike’s a veteran, he deserves it, he got sick.”


Mike. Photo by Lorenzo Dickerson

Mike

“I grew up in Virginia Beach, in Sandbridge. I’m a millwright and I came to Waynesboro for work. We used to put sawmill equipment in and travel around the country. And then it ended up going out of business. I ended up in Charlottesville homeless. I’ve actually been homeless since 1991. I sleep out, flying signs, motels and stuff like that. I think the last job I had was around 2007. I was working at UVA. This past winter I stayed in PACEM. I’ve stayed there, off and on, for about nine years. Sometimes I get too drunk and I get kicked out. I’ve been so drunk, I’ve had them hold me up. As long as I can sign my name, half the time I just put three X’s. I say, ‘That’s my full name.’ One thing about PACEM, you eat like a big dog. God almighty, boy. That’s some good eating. They treat the homeless here real good. If you go hungry in this city, man, it’s your own damn fault. They look out for us. You got breakfast at The Haven every morning. You got all these soup kitchens. And then dinnertime, you got the Salvation Army. If you’re panhandling, half the time people will go buy you something.

“I got housing now. This here is my fourth month. It took me six years, but I got it. The only way I got it is because I ended up getting sick. I ended up with colon cancer. I get another colonoscopy in December. I’ve got a place out on Fifth Street now. It’s a four-bedroom house, two bathrooms. My housemates were all homeless too, they were in the PACEM program with me. I still ain’t got used to living in a house but it beats jail. Of course, I did a little bit of time, too, in Virginia Beach. I did a year. Since I got housing man, I’m trying not to stay out on the streets drinking all the damn time. But being homeless, that was the only way you could survive man, was to stay drunk.

“I used to come up here every morning man, drink me a couple of these Twisted Teas, and I’m usually here every morning. They’re $2.52. They’re 5 percent (alcohol), plus they’re easy on your belly—it ain’t like beer that’ll blow you up. I usually leave my house, I go to Lucky 7 and get me a pack of cigarettes and an iced tea, and come up here and I’ll drink my tea. I’ll spend a couple hours. I don’t suck them down, it takes me a while. And then some of my buddies will come up, talk shit. Sometimes I’ll get on the trolley and ride the trolley around, or catch the bus and go to Fashion Square Mall.

“I think they ought to leave the statue alone. Just leave them right where they are. I think it’s just a bunch of bullshit. They ain’t bothering nobody. It’s been here just about 100 years. I suppose you’ve got to get rid of Thomas Jefferson at the Rotunda too. All them were slave owners. The past done happened. You can’t change it.”

Aaliyah. Photo by Lorenzo Dickerson

Aaliyah

“I’ve lived in Charlottesville all my life. I was born in UVA. My mom uprooted us from here and moved us to North Carolina, and then I moved back when I was 24 or 25 years old. I’ve been homeless before. Back in 2005 and 2006, I was homeless and sleeping on the streets. I have slept in Tonsler Park. I never slept in this park, but I slept downtown on the mall. I went from there to the Salvation Army. They helped me get housing, and clothes and supplies I needed for my home. They helped me with counseling and all that. And now I have a place; I have a two-bedroom apartment in Westhaven. I’ve been there going on three years now. I’m actually trying to find a full-time job now, trying to get somebody to help me with my résumé, because I’m going to do in-home health care. I got my nursing degree and my CPR license. We have a lot of homeless people here. And if they don’t have any other place to go, their home is in this park.

“I think that statue needs to be removed. It needs to be taken down because there’re going to be more problems. I think the park needs to be renamed for Heather. I met Heather in passing. I actually went to D.C., we had a march about a year or two ago, and that’s how I met Heather. I think it was a Black Lives Matter march. We rode up together on the bus.

“We need to get this community to pull together. We need a change, especially the justice system. I feel the justice system is so corrupt, even down to social services—they need to be investigated, because they are targeting more black families, and more black families are torn apart. I’m one of them. I had three kids. They uprooted my family in 2012, going on the assumption of somebody else’s lying. I did everything that social services told me to do: parenting classes, drug class and all that. I got in court and they turned the tables on me, and didn’t give me my kids back. And everybody that was involved in my case: white. Even down to the judge. And more people in my community—Westhaven—have had that experience too.

“We need prayer, and more community support for the people who are hurting and suffering from August 12. I try and go visit where Heather died every day, light a candle, say a prayer, something. It’s going to take a lot to recover from this. But I think there is hope, because we’re a strong community when it comes to stuff like this.”


Kori. Photo by Lorenzo Dickerson

Kori

“It’s hard to find affordable housing. For a minute I was messed up out here. It’s hard. I just had to strive and grind to get it. It took me a minute; it’s stable now though. I was in and out of incarceration. I finally got out and said, ‘Okay I’m going to do it the straight way.’ It’s going to take a little longer, but hey.

“I don’t care about the statue. I’m a northerner. I’m from New York City, Manhattan. If you want to take down the Madison Square Garden, then I’ll have something to say. But there’s too much stuff that you would have to change if you take one away. It would start a domino effect. Removing a single statue is not going to be our 40 acres or anything like that.

“Focusing on the statue is a waste of time. The statue is what it is. You take this down, you’re going to have to take down every statue there is in this town. They’ll take down Jefferson next. But the kicker to that is: What about the trees? The trees that hung all those people. There would be no trees out here anymore.

“I came down here to get away from the headaches of New York. I’ve experienced some racism. I laugh at it, because growing up in midtown Manhattan, we seen it, but it was never as blatant as it is here. I look at it like, ‘Damn, y’all guys still think like that.’ That’s so in the past. I have an interracial child. You got to get out of that mind state, that’s just stagnation. Just be open-minded. Education helps. Be willing to try new things.”


Jennifer. Photo by Lorenzo Dickerson

 

Jennifer

“Everyone’s so worried about a damn statue, but ain’t nobody worried about addiction or mental health or homeless people or all these kids in foster care. This is a waste of energy and time for everybody. Instead of doing all of this, why don’t you focus on getting kids off the streets. There’s so much else going on other than the statues. What about our mental health patients, or recovering addicts? You know how hard it is for a felon to get housing around here? Y’all got Fourth Street Crossings [The Crossings at Fourth and Preston]—no disrespect—for these homeless drunks. But yet, why don’t y’all open something like that for mothers and kids? Mothers and kids are more important than a grown-ass man out here. And then they’re quick to take your kid away and say, ‘You’re a bad mother.’ And once you get your kids taken, you’re not getting them back.

“Y’all worried about somebody selling weed out here because they can’t get a job. But that’s the only way to maintain their family. Why aren’t they worried about the big stuff? Because they got money, they don’t have to worry about that. People wonder why people turn to the streets to get bread, because there’s not an opportunity to get ahead. You got a distribution charge, you can’t get food stamps. You got a felony drug charge, you can’t get housing. What the hell you expect me to do then? I’m not going to be homeless. I’m going to get it how I know how to get it.

“I’ve been here for 27 years of my life and never seen anything like what happened on August 12. We got low-key racism, but we never had that much hate here. It’s fucked up when your 4-year-old daughter says that a Nazi’s going to come take her skin because she’s mixed. That’s messed up. And she prays for peace in her neighborhood. My daughter told me, ‘We don’t fight with the Nazis, we pray for them.’ I said, ‘If they mess with you, I’m going to cut their necks.’ If black people came in on August 12 like the white people did, you think the police would have stood down? Exactly. They would have locked all of us up and we would have all gone to jail.”

Greg. Photo by Lorenzo Dickerson

Greg

“I’ve been in Charlottesville nine years. I came out with a so-called friend. I was in San Bernardino, California, before that. I think Charlottesville treats it’s poor people like shit. The rich people, they act like—you know how you see some rich people and they hold their pinky finger up while they drink their coffee? Yeah, they act like that. You know how when you get gum on your shoes and you try to scrape it off, but sometimes it doesn’t come off? Or you step in shit? They act like that, like they’re stepping in gum or shit.

“I go on the mall and I hold up a sign. I get Social Security, but Social Security don’t pay you shit. And then me and Beatrice go on the mall and hold up a sign and ask people, ‘How’re you doing?’ And they act like we’re not even there. There’s a thing called grace. Grace is where you ask somebody to respect you. If you ask somebody, ‘How’re you doing?’ they don’t have to answer you, but they don’t have to look at you like you’re nothing.

“We go to The Haven, and The Haven gives you soap and towels, and that’s a help. But they don’t help you with anything else. I’m not saying that The Haven doesn’t help. We got these two backpacks from The Haven. I’m just saying they should help more than what they do.

“I’m sorry Robert E. Lee had slaves. I’m sorry everybody had slaves. I’m sorry that happened. But we can’t do anything about it now. There are a lot of people who are prejudiced, a lot of people who are not. But you ain’t going to change people who are prejudiced’s minds. People are going to be that way because that’s the way they were raised. Daddy raised them that way. They can be that way until the day they die and they’re not going to change. If you don’t like somebody, then go away. If you don’t like somebody on your side of the street, then go on the other side of the street.”


Beatrice

“This is my hometown of 61 years. I’ve had five or six heart attacks, a couple of mini-strokes. I’m still going. I’ve never felt better in my life. The Lord’s not ready for me yet. I’m just who I am. If you don’t like me, oh well, it’s your loss.

“We absolutely need a year-round homeless shelter. You just never know, with the blink of an eye, your life could change. We didn’t ask to be homeless, it just happens. We spent the winter living in motels. It cost almost $3,000 for a winter in Charlottesville in motels. We panhandled. We had to do what we could to survive. No stealing or anything like that. But it was rough man. We went a couple of days without eating. We were safe, but it could have been deadly.

“When we first went to The Haven, they said they’d help us with first month’s rent and deposit. And then they put us out—they said we weren’t homeless enough. They put our asses facing up. So we basically decided to do it on our own. We’re getting there. We’ve got several possibilities. Looking to try and spend no more than $800 a month. It’s hard in Charlottesville to find a decent place. The rent is so high. A decent one-bedroom is going to cost you $1,000 to get in it. And some landlords, they might work with you, but others say no, they need it right up front. You’re looking at quite a bit of money at one time. Sometimes they ask for first, last, plus a deposit.

“Volunteers came in and redid the whole sitting area in The Haven, which they put benches in. It’s gorgeous. Now it’s up to us. I’m a recovering alcoholic, but the people who drink and do whatever they do—to not come in there and mess that stuff up, to have respect for it. I wouldn’t tolerate it. I was on the street, and I know what the street’s about. But I also know that people can get their lives together. It’s hard for everybody. But you’ve just got to have respect for yourself.”


Michael. Photo by Lorenzo Dickerson

 

Michael

“Everybody knows me in this park. I’ve lived here for 25 years. I know people in high places and low places. I can understand both sides. Honestly, I think they’ve gentrified the whole town for real. That’s part of it. This town used to be a lot more liberal than it is now. It was more artsy, and people were more understanding. It’s been the story since the beginning of time that rich people want to keep the homeless out of sight and out of mind. If I was a UVA student and I was in this park drinking, ain’t nobody going to say nothing to me. But I’m not a UVA student and if I want to sit here and drink a beer in the park, they’re going to be like, ‘You’re on OAR District 9, and this is your rap sheet.’

“Man, it’s still Lee Park to me. You can call it what you want. How’s the saying go?: You can color a turd any color, but it’s still a turd. It don’t really matter. They change the names so that people who aren’t from here, when they come here, it makes them feel safer because of the names. You can call Garrett Square ‘Friendship Court,’ but it’s still Garrett Square. And then the city will build these condos right across from Garrett and these people are like, ‘Oh cool man. I’ve got my safe little condo,’ but people are still shooting and selling drugs.

“I don’t really give a damn what they do with that statue for real. They can keep it there. It’s not about the statue really, that’s just the surface. The problem is people like to do things in the park they shouldn’t be doing. And it’s scaring the public. That’s really what’s going on. That’s why they got those damn cameras here. It’s just overkill for real.

“Why not just rid of Robert and leave the horse? Paint it a different color? It’s been there for so long, and now it’s a problem? What’s going to change? The trees are still going to be here. I’m going to still sit in this park and get fucked up, with or without the cameras or the yuppies walking around. I don’t give a shit about that. They’re going to be here, and I’m going to be here.”


Joseph

“I’m originally from southeast D.C., born and raised. Straight from the heart of the ghetto. Can’t nobody tell me anything about hood. I’ve lived it. I grew up on it. Me? I’m done. I just came home from jail August 9. They shipped me from the complex to Piedmont Regional for fighting. Then I got to fighting in Piedmont Regional. I suffered a scar because of that. But that boy got his ass whooped.

“When I was close to coming home, I started telling myself what I had to do to get back up on my feet, and I’m doing it already.

“Here in Charlottesville, you can’t fight hatred with hatred. You’ve got to fight it with peace, love and happiness. Virginia is for lovers, so let’s make that us. Virginia doesn’t need to turn on itself, and even though some of us been trying to turn the hate to joy, crap like August 12 happens. People need to stop hating. Come together as a community to fight hatred with love.

“I wasn’t that far from where my homegirl Heather got killed. Somebody called me and said, ‘Yo, we need you down here on Fourth Street.” Heather had got hit. Heather, of all people? I was real good friends with her. She used to be able to talk to me when I was mad. Back in 2014 she didn’t know who I was, but she stopped me in front of Rapture and asked, ‘You all right?’ I said, ‘Not really, I’m trying to figure out how I can get out of having a messed up life.’ She said, ‘If you ever need somebody to talk to, come talk to me.’ She used to put joy in my heart. That’s my homegirl. She helped me out. She would want us to stop the hatred and combine together. She died for us to come together, to get rid of this hate. I done put my foot down and decided I’m going to carry on what she started. I’m going to finish it. She deserves that.”


Reuben. Photo by Lorenzo Dickerson

Reuben

“I went to CHS for ninth grade. I moved to Lynchburg for 10th grade, and for about four years after that. Those were the worst four years of my life. The best thing to come out of Lynchburg was my son.

“I’ve been homeless about four times. But when I was homeless, I knew how to survive. I knew how to make ends meet, how to make a couple dollars. I’m blessed now, I got my own place. The only thing now is I need a job, I ain’t got no way to pay the rent. But I went down to the people at The Haven yesterday to give them a piece of paper and they say they’re going to see what they can do for me.

“I’ve got a credit card fraud charge on my record, and I can’t get a good job. I had an interview and all they had to do was check my background. You know they were going to hire me, but they said because of my charge, they won’t hire me. I wasn’t even applying for a job dealing with a cash register. I was dealing with stock. Some people are very selective of who they hire.

“This whole situation is stupid, man. All this that’s going on with the statue, it’s a bunch of mess. For what? I don’t know. As much shit that done went down in the damn park, Robert ain’t never say shit and the horse ain’t never nay or do a goddamn thing. Say it gets removed, what y’all going to do now? If they had a plan to put something there, it would make sense. But you’re moving it, to do what? We should help the homeless man. You’ve got people that are struggling and trying to get on their feet. That’s what needs to be next. After all this here, you need to focus on some of these homeless people.

“It’s getting ready to be cold. The people at The Haven help people. But if they’re going to help you, you’ve got to show them that you’re helping yourself. A couple of people down there, they complain, but they’re not doing anything. I think they’re tired of getting rejected, tired of people telling them no. That’s why they try to do it on their own. I ain’t going to lie, I’m like that now. I don’t like asking anybody for nothing. My dad always taught me: If you want things in life, sometimes you’ve got to go out there and work for it.

“When I first became homeless, I didn’t care at all: how I looked, how I dressed, how I treated a person. I didn’t care. All that’s changed now. I got my own place, and everything’s fine now. I’m doing the best I can to try and keep it and maintain it, because all this can be taken away real quick. I wake up in the morning, and I may not go to church, but I know the Lord. And I tell him, ‘Thank you.’”