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Thursday, November 15, 2007

City Council Meeting - 11/12/07 - Citizen Comment

These are my remarks given during the Citizen Comment period of this week's City Council meeting. I hope to have the video available soon.

Thank you President Pantele, Council Members. My name is Paul Hammond. I live downtown in the 2nd District. I’ve come to speak about mental illness and the homeless.

We have a problem today and it starts with silence. Ordinary, compassionate people are frightened of being stigmatized as uncaring bigots, so they say nothing... and people keep dieing. Usually the victims are nameless and vanish in the back pages;... sometimes they have names, like Susanne Thompson. If we are ever going to solve the difficult problems of this city we must be able to speak openly and without fear. The worst threat to free speech is self censorship.

We need policies that are based on compassion and common sense.

Individuals and groups have been working for years to provide better alternatives to the feeding programs at Monroe Park, but the parade of givers continues to grow. There are groups that refuse to cooperate with established organizations like Homeward and the Salvation Army that provide food and services to those who need it. Their motives are political, social, religious and personal. Oft times it is more about the giver than the receiver. Seldom does anybody consider the unintended consequences of their giving.

I spent 8 hours in the park yesterday and observed 8 different groups come to the park to pass out food and supplies. Over two hundred lined up for a free breakfast which was quite good. Seconds were encouraged. After that groups dispersed throughout the park to pick and choose which meal was worth getting in line for. It was a mixture of the homeless, the hungry, the needy, the greedy and the just plain lazy. In the meantime, ordinary citizens and students make a wide arc around the park and one of Richmond’s most famous landmarks goes to waste.

The organized use of Monroe Park by these organizations should be phased out as quickly as possible. The people of Richmond, the residents of the neighborhood and the students of VCU and their families deserve to have their rights respected and their safety taken seriously. If we have learned anything in this past year, it’s that we can’t continue to ignore this problem. As the Mayor said, “We will have another Susanne Thompson.” or worse, we will have another Virginia Tech.

This problem is bigger than Richmond. We need the cooperation of the entire metro area. If they don’t want the homeless, the least they should do is help pay for their care. We will need new state laws and money. The Federal Government needs to step forward and make sure veterans are taken care of. If we keep doing what we have been doing we will get more of the same.

I’d like to tell a brief story. The night before the vigil, I placed some flowers and a candle near where Susanne was murdered. When I came back 5 minutes later and I saw a man walking 50 feet ahead of me and had a premonition. I watched as he walked up to the flowers and delivered a perfect kick sending flowers and candle flying. I immediately chased him down and screamed at him about disrespect and sacrilege and he just stared at me and started muttering gibberish. I realized I was wasting my breath and just let him go. This in a nutshell illustrates the difficulty of the problem we face. Let’s not waste our breath. We can’t solve the whole problem right here, but let’s take some real action and make a difference. I ask the Council and the Mayor to work together return Monroe Park back to the citizens of Richmond. We’ll take the rest from there.

Thank you for your time.

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