A forgotten street in Ghent has served as an encampment for Norfolk’s homeless. Now they have to move.

·3 min read

The thin strip of land between the sidewalk and a chain-link fence behind Ghent School isn’t good for much.

For two blocks along 19th Street, it’s just wide enough to put up a tent. The area is quiet and without much traffic, but no one wants to live there if they have other options.

Since November, people with nowhere else to go gathered and huddled under tents along the forgotten street in one of the wealthiest areas of the city. By April, a couple dozen people were living there, many going to jobs during the day and returning at night.

But Saturday, they were forced to move — throwing more chaos into their lives.

“It has been brought to our attention that very soon you will no longer be able to maintain tents on this property,” reads a flier from the city’s housing and homeless services. It offers temporary housing.

But the city’s facilities are at or near capacity and not everyone got a flier, which serves as a ticket to get in. The old downtown Greyhound Station, which the city converted into a temporary homeless shelter earlier this month, already has a waiting list, said Jupiter Walbrook, who was helping people pack up Saturday afternoon. Some had hotel rooms for one night, but that was a temporary solution.

City spokeswoman Lori Crouch disputed those claims, stating in an email that city officials “talked to every resident at the camp and gave them a letter with instructions. The Greyhound shelter is not at capacity and a resident will be provided safe shelter. Several residents have already checked in at the shelter. The City is not insisting the residents relocate today.”

“There are more homeless people in the area than we even know. There are more homeless people in the area than are on record,” Walbrook said. “We don’t know what to do.”

Many living along 19th Street moved Saturday to Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza, at the corner of Brambleton Avenue and Church Street. The decision was made early in the day and was in part a protest for making them leave, said Shefali Hegde, a member of Tidewater Tenants Rights. The city insisted they move today, and a coalition of nonprofits and concerned citizens had come together to help, she said.

“They want to stay together,” she said. “The reason they are moving there is because there is nowhere else to go.”

Jabari Jones, who has lived at the camp for several months, said the people try to keep to themselves. He said he’d been moved out of other areas in the past and was tired of being ordered around. The residents weren’t bothering anyone and just wanted a place to stay.

“We’re just minding our business,” he said.

The move created plenty of emotions among the people who’d been staying there, said Elena Cruz, a volunteer who was helping people clean and pack.

“These guys are already going through enough trauma,” she said.

Some of the people staying there have mental health issues and for many, routine and personal space are important. They need a little stability and moving is difficult for them. She said that the homeless problem has exploded in the city in the past few months because of COVID and the downturn in the economy. The city needs to do more to address it, she said.

“These are good people in a hard situation,” she said.