During his campaign, Mayor Ron Oler began thinking about the plight of unhoused people in Richmond encampments.

Helping those people would address issues such as trash, open fires, noise and overdoses, and upon taking office, Oler tasked Richmond Police Department with leading the assistance effort. But, it wouldn’t just be a police endeavor. Oler said city employees from the sanitation, street, parks and code enforcement departments, churches, and Bridges for Life have participated.

“Government can’t fix every problem,” Oler said after Richmond Common Council received a progress update during its March 18 meeting. “You need the community to fix every problem, so getting the community together was hugely important. That’s why it’s working.”

Earlier that day, Oler had assisted the latest effort, behind the Tractor Supply Co. at 4675 National Road E. Because of advance work, the eight or so people living there had already received assistance and left with their belongings. Oler’s goal was to assist unhoused people in the South 37th Street and Backmeyer Road area, the area north of Glen Miller Park, the Cardinal Greenway and behind TSC by late spring, when leaves and undergrowth would make accessing the camps difficult, but the effort is already nearly complete.

“It was important to me to do this with compassion,” Oler said. 

RPD Chief Kyle Weatherly re-imagined the department’s traffic division, resulting in PACT (Policing and Community Together), which is led by Lt. Mike Black. That division implemented a three-phase approach: investigating complaints, identifying camps and occupants, and locating and using resources. 

“Everybody has come together and done an excellent job of not just cleaning up the area, but actually, the unsheltered, giving them the resources they need to actually get housing,” Weatherly said.

The unhoused people at each location were given notice 30 to 45 days before a removal effort. Continued contact, especially by Bridges for Life, helped them receive services, maybe for mental health or drug abuse issues, or simply help acquiring identification paperwork necessary to obtain housing. Jeff Holthouse of Bridges for Life said a voucher program has helped provide housing.

Holthouse spoke about an Ohio man who is smart and wanting to work, but all of his identification had been stolen. Bridges for Life helped him acquire his birth certificate, a Social Security card and, finally, a state ID. He now stays in a hotel while waiting for a housing voucher and searches for work.

“Let’s get these people to where they have a life again,” Holthouse said.

Det. Pat Tudor, who during the program located a high school classmate and neighbor who was employed but without a place to live, called Holthouse and Tim Pierson the heroes of the program for their constant efforts. Tudor said he’s proud of the program’s results.

“We did not want to and, I can assure you and the citizens of Richmond, we didn’t come in and displace anybody,” Tudor said.

Pierson said Bridges for Life had interacted with many of the unhoused previously and knew them. They all were assisted with moving their personal items, sometimes trailer loads of items from hard-to-reach locations.

“This was handled with such class and great, great compassion and respect,” Pierson said. “It was really a very classy way to do it.”

Council members also thanked Pierson and Holthouse for their efforts. Jane Bumbalough said each man has a “heart of gold.”

“You are a prime example of, if we all had a heart like that, this city would be turned around quicker than anything,” she said. “I just can’t thank you enough.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 27 2024 print edition of the Western Wayne News.

Mike Emery is a reporter and layout editor for the Western Wayne News.