On Monday, September 18th at 6:30 P.M, the Charlottesville City Council convened for a meeting so packed full of participants that they were pressured to extend the public comment period to 8:00 P.M. As my friends and I entered off the downtown mall, we said a quick hello to a group of homeless community members stuck outside, briefly noticing one man with his oxygen tank plugged into the outlet on the side of City Hall. City Councilors Payne, Pinkston, and Puryear sat across the dais with Mayor Snook, Vice Mayor Wade, and City Manager Sanders; along the side lecterns were representatives of the police department and parks and recreation. After conducting some initial housekeeping parks & rec business, City Manager Sanders assured the public that a controversial proposed surveillance system, FLOCK, was at the moment just that: a proposal, and that the Council would make a decision on if and when it would go live when that time comes. This vague platitude would in no way calm the following public comment, with over 7 community members expressing their defiance against the implementation of a mass surveillance system that has no actual evidentiary linkage to lower crime rates. You can learn more about issues with FLOCK here and here.
Other key issues addressed in the public comment period included rising concerns about gun violence, and immense community support for Cultivate Charlottesville, an urban agriculture program aimed at reducing food insecurity and inequity in the area surrounding Booker T. Washington Square Park, a known food desert in Charlottesville. Over 10 individuals spoke in support of the Cultivate initiative, including UVa School of Architecture’s Dean of Equity and Inclusion and Professor of Landscape Architecture, Dr. CL Bohannan. On gun violence concerns, two especially notable speakers were that of Mr. Jones, a Charlottesville resident of 61 years there to support the homeless population and speak on gun violence prevention and safety for those outside of the “rich, white UVa” demographic. Later, a 6 year old came up with an older woman to speak about how rising gun violence in Charlottesville has personally impacted her and her family. Her house had been shot up twice, and she was scared of guns and felt unsafe now. While talking, she was clutching a toy she had brought with her to give her strength. When I was leaving the meeting, I heard the woman comforting her, telling her, “You did a good job.”
However, a focus of the evening, and why myself and a number of student and community activists were present at the meeting, was the police harassment and abuse of homeless Charlottesville residents while they were sleeping at Market Street Park on Saturday, September 16th. The City had recently decided to implement a curfew at the park, something that, as many community leaders pointed out, criminalizes people sleeping there who have nowhere to go. It is also illegal. In Martin v. Boise (2019), the Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to enforce public anti-camping ordinances– in other words, criminalize people sleeping in a public place– if there are not enough shelter beds available. And Charlottesville has one of the worst combinations of low shelter bed availability and desperately low housing affordability in the city. While multiple individuals were forcibly awoken and subsequently removed from the park, two people were the target of mistreatment by CPD. Keemarcus Murray, a man sleeping in the park, was kicked multiple times by a police officer attempting to wake and remove him (which, again, is illegal). Roscoe Boxley, a community member well-known and well-loved at The Haven, was alleged to have “gotten smart” with the officers at his forced expulsion from a public place, so they arrested him on a probation violation, for a charge he was only one month away from completing. He has since been jailed in the Albemarle County Jail, and many people (at minimum 12) came to speak in support of Roscoe and the others in the park; since the meeting, community activists filled the courtroom in support of him during his hearing on September 25th, and are encouraging community members to support Roscoe at trial on October 16, at 9 A.M. at the County Courthouse.
The first woman to speak out in the meeting about the violence at the Park was DeeDee Gilmore, a local activist who came to support the homeless individuals at the scene on Saturday. She spoke about how horrified she was that police had taken the tents of people in the park, their only shelter, just days after she had dropped off a few new tents and supplies to the community. She spoke about the mind-boggling fact that the city is willing to spend 73 million dollars on an expansion of the local jail, but will spend none of that money to help house people in the community. Lastly, she pointedly asked the council members, “If it was you, how would you feel? Because it could be you any day.” Also present among the many speakers were the Executive Director of the Haven, Anna Mendez, and Ang Conn, Director of Housing Programs at the Haven. Ms. Mendez spoke not just in support of the individuals in the park, but also made a request to city council: currently, a significant barrier to expanding their services exists in their lack of ownership of the Haven’s building. However, the present owner, Tom Shadyack, has offered to give the building to the non-profit should they be granted Property Tax exemption by the City. Mendez noted that this would amount to less than .022% of their annual operating budget, making it a no-brainer in terms of investing in services for homeless community members.
Ang Conn was incredibly compelling; she began by asking each person sitting on the Council if they had walked in through the front door, or taken the side entrance. Each of them had not deigned to walk in through the front door. If they had, Ang noted, they would have seen not only groups of their constituents sitting outside, but also the man I mentioned earlier, standing with his partner against the side of the City Council building to plug in his oxygen. She implored the council to do more than shame, harass, or ignore the individuals they are supposed to be representing, and reminded them that homeless Charlottesville residents are people who live in the city for whom they have a responsibility as public servants. After finishing speaking, Ang brought in the man from outside and his partner, Ms. Ali, who decided to address the Council. She spoke about the abomination and violence she had seen on the street, and the lack of care she’s experienced from people in Charlottesville; she talked about their dereliction of duty and responsibility, and was another person to remind the councilors that it could be them one day, any day, out on the streets. I honestly teared up listening to her speak, and I am so thankful that Ms. Conn was so determined to get the two of them connected to services that very night. Work like what the Haven does is what all the activists there were there to support: shelter, food, community, and there needs to be more of it. Many more poignant speakers came up to voice their disgust at the police abuse in the park and their support for Roscoe, Keemarcus, and all of the homeless people that live here in Charlottesville.
Clearly, after such immense public pressure, the City bent in terms of one request. On September 21, the Charlottesville City Council issued the following statement for immediate release:
“City Manager Addresses Unhoused Community Crisis in Market Street Park”
“City Manager, Samuel Sanders, Jr. has issued a directive to life the closing time in Market Street Park. ‘It came to my attention during Monday night’s City Council meeting of allegations regarding confrontations between Charlottesville Police Department (CPD) and two unhoused community members while enforcing operating hours. This is currently under administrative investigation. The City of Charlottesville takes these allegations seriously and Chief Kochis and I will remain focused on maintaining positive interactions with all of our officers,” said Sanders. “I want the City to be a catalyst for change in addressing housing insecurity and homelessness, which is why I am assembling my team to build a long term strategy.”
While this is certainly a step in the right direction, it is certainly not enough. People still don’t have homes or enough shelter beds, while the City throws more money down the drain at the Albemarle County Jail. A community activist’s words at the meeting are what I would like to leave readers with, as a reminder of our responsibility as students at the University of Virginia and inhabitants of the city of Charlottesville. “We keep each other safe. Get involved in cop-watching. Get to know people living on the streets, reach out, build relationships, and offer help.” She’s right. Whatever you can give, whether it be as small as a water bottle from CVS or a simple “hello” while walking by or as big as a place to stay, we all have a role to play in supporting all the members of the Charlottesville community.
The opinions expressed within this piece represent the views of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jefferson Independent.