City Manager Sam Sanders has removed the 11 p.m. curfew at Market Street Park after being informed at a City Council meeting last Monday that police allegedly mistreated two homeless men there.
The decision is the latest move the city has taken as it attempts to deal with increasing homelessness throughout Charlottesville.
Tents have been set up in the park in recent weeks, and several people living in them told The Daily Progress they hope Sanders’ decision will prevent police from harassing them at night.
That’s what happened two weekends ago, when a police officer approached KeMarcus Murray in the park and, according to witnesses, kicked him while he was sleeping.
“He kicked that boy like he was kicking a football down the field to the other team,” Redelli Banks, who witnessed the incident, told The Daily Progress. “He put his soul into that kick.”
That was the latest incident. Two weeks prior, after driving by the site in unmarked cars and taking pictures of people residing there, a dozen or so police returned to the site and arrested one man, Roscoe Boxley, for trespassing.
Banks and Destiny Johnson, who live in a tent on the north side of the park, watched the series of events unfold. They noted that Boxley had a sign by his tent protesting the park’s curfew, and that he was the only person arrested despite not being the only tent on the premises. And as local resident Deidre Gilbert told City Council last Monday, Boxley was arrested while white people sleeping on park benches were not bothered.
In a Thursday press release, Sanders said both incidents are under investigation.
“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,” he added.
Sanders does not believe this is a permanent solution, according to Council Member Michael Payne.
“One of the big conversations we’re having is how do we actually get to the point of making a year-round permanent shelter which obviously doesn’t exist in the community,” Payne told The Daily Progress. “That’s a big priority for Sam Sander and it would have to be done with organizations that have experience with that.”
Currently, the Salvation Army is the only overnight shelter in Charlottesville and it only has 50 beds.
Captain Mark Van Meter says his organization regularly has to turn people away because the shelter is at capacity. While there is a plan to double the number of beds, fundraising is still underway and the project will likely not be completed for another two years.
But Van Meter views council’s decision to approve the expansion as evidence that the city is not turning a blind eye to homelessness.
“I am very hopeful that Charlottesville does take a keen interest in its citizenship,” he told The Daily Progress. “They are really trying to get their hands wrapped around the issue they see in front of themselves.”
The decision to remove the curfew is being welcomed by the people living in the park.
“We don’t bother anybody, we make sure it’s clean, we’re respectful, we don’t cause problems,” Banks said.
Johnson explained that she and others gravitate to the parks because they are not welcomed anywhere else.
“Any other place we’ve tried to find shelter, whether it’s for rain or any other situation, police get called and kick us out. So the only place left is the public park system,” Johnson said, adding that the homeless are treated like “a contagious disease.”
Banks, who has lived in Charlottesville her entire life, believes that until the homeless are provided a safe shelter elsewhere, the park should remain open to them.
“If we’re respectful and clean up behind ourselves and we don’t start any trouble, why not?” she asked.
Anna Mendez, executive director of The Haven, a day shelter in downtown Charlottesville, has been advocating for the curfew to be removed for years.
“We are so grateful and thrilled at the decision to end the curfew in the park,” Mendez told The Daily Progress. “The existence or not of a curfew is not something that impacts how many people are experiencing homelessness and likely doesn’t even impact where people experiencing homelessness are hanging out. It’s only putting them at risk of being ticketed or arrested.”
She does not expect the curfew’s temporary elimination to have any effect on the demand for services at The Haven.
“What we do anticipate is people will be able to sleep in that public place without fear of harassment,” she said.
The number of people in Charlottesville who have fallen into homelessness has grown by 25% since 2018, Anthony Haro, executive director of Blue Ridge Area Coalition for the Homeless, told The Daily Progress in August.
The decision to keep the park open at night has already irked a number of residents in the city.
In one email sent to Sanders, a resident described his decision to “give the park over to the homeless” as “a travesty.”
Mendez counters that neighbors should take time to meet the homeless, and offers that they can do so by volunteering at The Haven.
“It really saddens us when the focus of our community conversation seems to be more on outrage at people having to observe individuals experiencing homelessness rather than where we think the outrage should be placed, which is at the fact that in one of the wealthiest areas of Virginia, homelessness continues to exist,” she said.
Ricky Jordan has lived in Charlottesville since 2009 and purchased his tent two weeks ago. He told The Daily Progress that while he has injured feet, he hopes to find a part-time job that allows him to provide for himself.
Standing at the bus stop across from the park, wearing white sunglasses and a long-sleeve UVa t-shirt, he asked if people are willing to help a person down on their luck.
“Because if I was in a different position and I could help you, I would,” he said, removing his sunglasses. “Your son, your kid, your mother. I would try to help the best way I can, man.”
After that, Jordan walked away. He said he was about to cry.