Monday, October 24, 2011

Philanthropy Without A Budget

As my eyes opened this morning and my first thoughts of today were forming I found myself questioning the relevance of how I live my life, and really started thinking about the things that actually fulfill my human desires. I was asking myself two main questions;

1: What do I NEED to survive in this world, to remain healthy, strong, and capable to help?
2: What actions do I take that actually fulfill my interpretation of true happiness, content, satisfaction, and accomplishment within myself?

The answer to the first question seems simple enough. I need food. I need shelter. I need to be able to communicate. I need to be mobile.

The second question, for me, is simple as well. To me true happiness has nothing to do with what I feel current social expectations are. I have been told that success has been achieved when you have your own house, a nice car, a wife, money in the bank. To me though, success is stepping up and filling a void for humanity, helping your community, pulling someone out of their demise and planting them back on their feet. Happiness is helping others to stay warm in their river camps. Happiness is being a part of revitalizing the Pump House so others can come and use the space and enjoy the history and park. Being content is knowing that what I've accomplished by the end of the day has left a lasting impact on someone's life.

 Being 28 years old, I have had a decade of "adult" life to reflect on. I'm noticing patterns, observing what makes me feel complete, realizing what doesn't fulfill me, and trying to gear the rest of my life towards doing what I feel to be right.

One of the first conclusions I came across was that I will never be rich, I don't have any interest in being rich. I have skated through this last decade with an average bank account balance of $150. Somehow this has kept me fed, provided shelter, gasoline, and occasionally a bit to splurge on clothes, photography, a puppy, cigarettes, etc. I've been lucky enough that when I've needed money for something, I have found a way to make just enough to suffice. I've also been extremely lucky to have had good health and great friends that have helped support me in various ways throughout the years.

I am constantly presented with opportunities to serve my community, to lend a hand to humanity, to help without expectations or promises of being rewarded. These are the things that I value the most. There are a handful of things that have particularly stuck with me. One of the biggest things that I try to help with is finding and offering support to homeless people sleeping on our streets and in our woods. I am also involved with preserving the Pump House and doing site setup/teardown at the Richmond Folk Festival. I started Locally Owned Richmond in an attempt to build a networking platform for small, local business owners. I am attempting to start a group called Community Brain Share that would allow people to share their knowledge with others and in exchange learn new skills. I was asked about Street Medicine recently, and I'm hoping that it will take off in Richmond and that I'll be able to offer myself as a guide to help serve homeless people. There are a handful of cemeteries in Richmond that desperately need attention and cleaning, not to mention one that I know of that has completely disappeared. I volunteered at the Science Museum of Va until I no longer could find time around work. I started practicing to be an EMT to volunteer on a rescue squad, long story, but not quite yet disregarded.

I guess plain and simple I ask, how can I continue to support myself and still manage to find time to do what really makes me happy? How can I afford to keep giving myself to people and things that don't feed me? Is there a way to live without an income and manage to keep giving myself away? The easy answer would be to keep a job and sacrifice the time that I could be productive elsewhere. That seems to be the realistic approach. I just can't help but wonder if there is another answer though. Another way to get fed and have shelter and a phone and still dedicate my whole life to freelance serving.

Community Brain Share
Locally Owned Richmond
Street Medicine
Pump House
Richmond Folk Festival
Evergreen Cemetery Photos

Thursday, January 6, 2011

List of Things Needed To Help Homeless

As a lot of you already know, I am gathering donations and distributing them to people in our homeless community. I have received very generous donations from a few individuals and will be looking for more throughout winter. My main target is the homeless people that are camping in the woods. I am constantly walking around looking for more camps and quite surprised by the ingenuity of these individuals. Please take a look at the list below and let me know if you have any items you would be able to donate. I could also use some composition books to allow them to write out their stories. You can reach me through Twitter at @RVAphinney or leave a comment below and I will catch up with you. Thanks for your help!

Hats, gloves, coats, long johns, heavy socks, underwear, long sleeve
shirts, hoodies, scarves, and boots and shoes.

Backpacks, heavy trash bags for wet weather, blankets, sleeping bags,
flashlights, batteries, radios, lanterns, canned goods, instant coffee and
tea bags, water, pots, frying pans, dark tarps, tupperware/ziplock bags,
and rope/string.

Towels and wash clothes, soap, lotion, sanitary napkins, toilet paper,
baby wipes, feminine products, condoms, and cold medicine.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

If You Actually Spend Some Time In Monroe Park Instead Of Just Listening To Rumors

It's Saturday November 13th, 2010. I just got back from spending time in Monroe Park, observing activities, talking to people, participating with other members of my community, trying to figure out just why Monroe Park has been labeled as a dangerous place. I talked to members from Mount Olive Baptist Church, I talked to apparently homeless people, people playing chess, others waiting with their luggage to be picked to go to shelters, and members of The RVA Hoop Lovers. The RVA Hoop Lovers came out to show their support for Monroe Park, wanting to show people that they (mostly females) are not afraid to use the park. They are planning a family board game day, with a tentative time set at 2:30pm Sunday November 21st. I saw the community enjoying each others company, I saw people smiling and having a good time. I didn't see anyone openly drinking, anyone laying face down on the ground. I didn't see anyone causing trouble with anyone else. I won't claim that this never happens, but it isn't the norm.
Today I met Al in Monroe Park. Al and his wife Darlene have been staying in the park for the last 4 months. He came to Richmond from New Jersey last Thanksgiving to spend time with his father before he passed away on January 5th, 2010. Al and Darlene spent a few months after his fathers death looking for a safe place to hang out while on the street. They ended up in Monroe Park, because they feel safe there. In the four months that they have been here he says that he has yet to see any incidents or altercations that would support the idea that the park is not a safe place. I asked about the concern about drug dealers and users in the park, and he did say that occasionally he does smell marijuana, but that he can't say there is a drug problem in the park.

I talked to members of Mount Olive Baptist Church that came out to see what they could possibly do to help the community in the midst of the City trying to use renovations as an excuse to flush out what they don't want. They want to be an active part of the Monroe Park community, with intentions of coming the second and fourth weekend of each month to show their support. When they contacted Richmond to ask about serving soup in the park they were told that they are only allowed to distribute sealed containers of food. I think that we all know that for years groups of people have been serving hot food prepared in kitchens and brought to the park. Hot food, straight from the pot to your tray. The members of Mount Olive Baptist Church and members of The RVA Hoop Lovers quickly united and had a two hour hoop jam together near the fountain. It was great seeing these two groups together, one as a community.
On the other side of the park people were sitting at tables playing chess. Further down there was a group of Live Action Role Players sword fighting with wooden swords and shields. There were children playing, side by side with homeless people. No one was scared to be there, and no one is in favor of building a 9' wall around the entire park for 18 months. If you want to support your park then use it. Make yourself visible. You'll be okay.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Monroe Park - Another Brick In The Wall

*Important update* 11/07/10
*The link to the Monroe Park Master Plan has been retrieved thanks to a friend that had the forethought to save the pdf to their computer. It can be uploaded through Monroe Park Master Plan
To upload this to your computer, click this link, look to the left under "view this book" and right click "pdf". Then select "Save File As" and save it to your computer. It is a large file, 66MB, and contains a 130 page pdf. The main point that I wanted to make from this pdf is the statement regarding "The ratio of nonhomeless users to apparently homeless ones must be at least 75-100:1 to draw female visitors in great numbers.", which can be found on page 61 on the bottom of the left column. This pdf also talks about the hiring of private security that may not have to abide by the same guidelines as police officers when dealing with 'apparently homeless' people.*

Monroe Park is currently at the center of the latest heated community debates. Originally purchased in 1851 by the City of Richmond, the 11 acre park is now in need of major renovations. The City of Richmond has designed a master plan to renovate the park, at the cost of $6,179,000 taxpayer dollar for Phase One, which is called Park-wide Renovations. Phase Two, costing $1,051,000 would cover repairs to the Checkers Building which houses the bathrooms. Phase Three, called Site Amenities, is priced at $623,000. This is then followed with $1,150,000 for Programmatic Costs. This information is available at There was another link that explained the plan more thoroughly but the link to that no longer appears to be active. This link here appears to break down the costs a little more extensively,

I don't take up any issue with making repairs to the park. I believe the bathrooms should be in good working order, that there should be heat in them to keep the pipes from freezing during the winter. I think that some of the trees probably are unhealthy, although proper preventive maintenance probably would have prevented them from getting to the point where they need to be cut down. I agree that the lights could be upgraded to more energy efficient models that will produce more output. I don't necessarily agree that some of the blacktop paths should be completely removed, but I'm not very opinionated about the paths.

My main issue with the renovation is the tactic at which the City of Richmond is handling the homeless, and "apparently homeless" people that congregate in the park and receive meals from organizations and caring, compassionate people. In the master plan that is not currently available it was mentioned that the only way to get females to use the park was to reduce the ratio of "apparently homeless" people to 1 per 75-100 'apparently not homeless' people. This means if the city hit the projected number of patrons, about 900 at any given time, that there should only be 9-10 "apparently homeless" people in the public park. Supposedly if there are more than a 1:75-100 ratio, females will be afraid to be in the park.

So after reading the plan, talking to people using the park, and people that serve meals in the park, I decided to attend the meeting that Councilman Charles Samuels held in conjunction with Homeward at The Carillon in Dogwood Dell last night. It was put out as a public meeting to discuss where the homeless will best be served after the 9 foot tall construction fence is built around the entire 11 acres, which is estimated to remain in place for about 18 months. I arrived at the meeting and found about a dozen round tables set out with approximately 8 chairs per table. There were a few opening speakers, Councilman Samuels, a member from Homeward, a member from Embrace, and a man that has successfully won his battle with addiction and homelessness. After the introduction we were informed that the meeting was not designed to allow any one person to address their concerns openly, but we were to discuss amongst our table members what solutions there are for feeding the homeless after the wall goes up.

Now this didn't set well with me. I was there because I don't want to see the entire park closed for about 18 months, but instead done in sections, leaving some open grassy areas open for public use at any given time. It's similar to renovating a school, the renovations are made around the students. Similar to fixing a couple rooms in your house while you live in the un-renovated parts.

My table began discussions and almost immediately the whole table came to the conclusion that the park cannot be fully closed at any point. So where does that leave us? The eight strangers at my table wanted to voice their concerns to Councilman Samuels, not sit around talking about how we were all in agreement already and not being listened to by the meeting leaders. I called Samuels to our table and informed him that none of us agreed with building a wall around the park. He told me that we need to address it as if "the wall is going up, so where are we going to send the homeless people". I mentioned that his response would not be accepted by our group and he did not budge from his position. We were asked to come up with alternatives, and our group collectively agreed that (1) a small portion of the park must remain open, (2) portable toilets and hand sanitizing stations need to be provided while the bathroom is inaccessible, and (3) there needs to be a representative for the homeless community -not a paid shelter employee- and a representative for the VCU student body at any future meeting regarding Monroe Park.

At the conclusion of the meeting the room was asked to send one person from each table to report on what their small group had discussed. It seemed to me that the majority of the people in the room were in favor of keeping a portion of the park open, one even suggesting providing facilities to help with food preparation for the regular feedings. Another suggestion was to transport everyone down to the Conrad Center every weekend and have feedings there, which apparently is in the works. ($20,000 has been raised in effort to meet a $25,000 budget for 6 months transportation from Monroe Park to the Conrad Center.) I'm not really sure how they figure it'd cost $1,000 per weekend to run a vehicle they already have...

I left the meeting last night feeling that my concerns will never be considered, that the meeting was called to pacify the people opposing the 9 foot wall by letting them believe they have a fighting chance. It has left me with more questions than answers. Now I want to know what role VCU has played in encouraging the wall, what funding is coming from them. I want to know how much the CEO's of the non-profit homeless shelters are making, I'm guessing somewhere around $150,000 per year, but I haven't seen their 990 forms yet. I want to know if this is a direct attempt to try to flush the apparently homeless population from the VCU area, figuring that within 18 months they will be in the habit of going somewhere else and not ever return to Monroe Park after it reopens. I don't see that working. They will return. The park is for people, all people, regardless of how apparently poor, dirty, or hungry you may appear.

*THIS UPDATE CAN NOW BE DISREGARDED, AS THE FILE HAS BEEN RETRIEVED AND IS BEING RECIRCULATED NOW. SEE  TOP OF BLOG. This is the link to the Master Plan. If it ever gets fixed you will find more information here.

*Powhatan Citizen asked about the location of The Conrad Center. It is located at 1400 Oliver Hill Way. To put it in perspective, Richmond City Juvenile Court is at 1600 Oliver Hill Way and Richmond Jail is just across the street. The neighboring communities are Mosby, Whitcomb, and Southern Barton Heights, which as stated below is typically "low-income housing with single parents or other relatives that may not have the resources to provide three well balanced meals each day", although those certainly are not the only low-income homes in Richmond. In addition to that, this location is practically inaccessible to anyone traveling on foot. I also don't like the wording of the last statement "groups who served weekend meals in Monroe Park, are invited to move to The Conrad Center" as this implies a past-tense tone. Below are the posted benefits of The Conrad Center. The Conrad Center

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Do Not Surrender!!!

It's hard to ignore something that pops up repeatedly. It all started a couple weeks ago when I met Phillip. I was finishing up a project downtown when Phillip happened to walk up to me inquiring about any nearby facilities to dispose of garbage that had been collected along the river. I wasn't able to answer his question, but it opened the door to a conversation that is still going on.

It turns out that Phillip is one of the many homeless people living in Richmond. He is one of the panhandlers that you may pass while you're busily driving down Richmond's streets. Having grown up in Richmond I've always known that almost anywhere you go you are bound to end up at a red light with a pathetic looking person holding a sign asking for money, food, work, anything you might have. Being in this situation has always made me uncomfortable, at times trying to use that little piece of metal along the side of the windshield to block eye contact with whoever this person might be. I'm not sure what it is that has caused me to have these uneasy feelings. Is it something my parents may have said when I was little? Is it our society that assumes these folks are untouchables? Is it knowing that I have a roof, a vehicle, some money, my own pack of cigarettes that makes me feel guilty? Is it that I know they are hungry and I'm not going to offer a dollar?

Whatever it is, I've ignored the whole topic until I met Phillip. We exchanged phone numbers that day and later that evening I was invited to have dinner with him and his friend Patrick*. Not knowing what I was getting into I ventured into the woods and we hung out for a few hours talking about anything that came up. I'll get back to this soon, but why I'm writing now is because of a topic that has come up repeatedly in the last few days alone.

Since Thursday suicide has been the topic of discussion more times than I care to even think about. It started with a friend asking what the meaning of "Adam's Song" by Blink 182 was. Later there was a discussion on the radio about it. Even later that evening I received a text from Phillip that he was going to commit suicide. I didn't know what to say, I've never received such an abrupt call for help. I said what I could, that it's not up to you to decide when your mission on earth has been fulfilled. That you need to be strong, hang in there, that people care about you and would be upset if you do this.

Phillip had received a call that his girlfriend had been killed in a car accident. Completely destroyed and in inner turmoil he decided that he didn't want to live anymore. He reached out to the only person that had taken time to listen to him. We talked things over and he made it through the night.

The next morning, Friday, Phillip called to let me know that he was okay. He told me of a man that had visited him that morning on the street corner that he was panhandling on. He had been there about five minutes when a well dressed middle aged man came to him in tears, asking "Why shouldn't I jump off this bridge?". The man's wife had just filed for divorce and served him with a restraining order. He seemed to think that his life was over, that it was up to him to end it. They talked for a few minutes, Phillip offered his story about his recent struggle with loss and suicide. He offered him a few kind words and watched him walk off wiping tears from his cheeks. That was yesterday at 10:30am.

During this time I am working, running all over the Richmond area getting things together. I had a job in the West End, made it to Innsbrook to buy a used digital camera for Phillip, then to Colonial Heights to replace some emergency lighting in a pizza joint. I planned on going back up Route 1 to swing by Chesterfield Trading Co to check out tools, but there was some sort of incident on Route 1 and I took a detour up 95N. Approaching 895 I looked over in southbound traffic and there were about 15 police cars in the left hand lane, with a bunch of officers standing at the front of the cars holding a yellow plastic tarp to the jersey wall. I look up and more officers are on the 895 bridge looking down on us. I knew immediately what had happened.

Someone jumped. Someone took it upon themselves to decide their life had no more meaning or purpose. How could they have known what opportunities may lay in the days ahead? Who did they leave behind? Who, if anybody, loved them? Did they have children? These are the thoughts running through my mind. I wasn't bothered by the fact that there was a body on the highway. I was angry. I was angry that someone took the easy way out of trouble.That was 3:00pm.

I carried these feeling with me back to Richmond. It was Friday evening when Phillip told me his account that morning. I didn't mention mine until this morning, Saturday. Had we came across the same person? We talked about it. I said it shouldn't be, the suicide victim was from Chesterfield. Phillip said the guy he met mentioned he was from Chesterfield. I asked his name, he said he regrets he didn't ask.

Late yesterday  Phillip's girlfriend's mother called him to let him know that there was a mix up with the id cards in the car accident, his girlfriend was not dead but in critical condition in a D.C. area hospital. She called again at 9:30 this morning to tell Phillip that his girlfriend hadn't lived through the night.

As I've been writing this I've been in phone conversation with Phillip. I'm encouraging him to stay strong, that it's the end of a chapter, not the end of the book. I've asked him not to get drunk, that the alcohol will only intensify the turmoil and grief in his mind. I remind him that people care about him, that people will miss him. Do not surrender!

Only time will tell how the wounds heal. I'm not sure what's happening, only that this has been forced upon me so much in the last few days that I cannot ignore it. I must write, hoping that through my words someone may find encouragement to keep going. Do not surrender!

*fake names