VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Walking through the muddy, wooded area by the railroad tracks off North Birdneck Road, you'll see toothpaste tubes, socks, crushed beer cans, and more strewn about the ground. It's what's left over from the site where dozens of people struggling with homelessness used to camp out.
Virginia Beach Police Department leaders and the city's Housing Resource Center have been monitoring the situation there for the past several months.
"It just started to get too big," said Lt. Brad Wesseler with the police department. "It's over a three-block radius.
Besides the fact that a growing number of people were living in the nook near the cul-de-sac of Distribution Drive, Wesseler said the living conditions became unsafe. He said people were bringing in power generators, trash was piling up, and some were consuming alcohol.
He said over the course of the past several months, he and his team have gotten to know some of the people living in the tents. Wesseler said some of the officers would offer to help the people stay in a hotel for a night or two or offer them food, using money out of their own pockets.
Eventually, the police department connected the people there with the Housing Resource Center. Workers with the center went out to introduce them slowly to resources to help them find shelter and food.
Wesseler said the growing number of people who were living in the camp is indicative of the growing hardships that the COVID-19 pandemic created. With that in mind, officers try to balance law enforcement with respecting people's personal space.
"It's tough, because you want to make sure they're cared and loved for. So, I think as a police officer and as a citizen, when you come across this, you don't villainize them, you don't criminalize their behaviors," said Wesseler as he stood in the middle of the now empty piece of land. "They need help. How can you help them?"
Pam Shine with the Resource Housing Center said about half of the people who lived there agreed to receive assistance. The others left, refusing to use any resources.
"One of them actually was a veteran that is now in housing, so that's a great outcome and two more are in the process of being housed," said Shine. "We're trying combat the increase as much as we possibly can."
Wesseler said the police department didn't clear out the space overnight. Officers took a long time to speak directly with the people living there and explained the situation. Although it's difficult to see people have to leave a place where they feel safe, he was glad to help those he could.
"It's a partnership that we try to help those that want the help and we really want them to have a better life if they chose to have it," said Wesseler. "We want them to be comfortable, but at the same time, they still have to abide by the laws of society."
The Housing Resource Center said if you see any camp setups similar to the one near the Oceanfront, call the center at (757) 385-5165. It will send out people to offer help to anyone experiencing homelessness.
If you see illegal activity happening in a similar camp, you should contact Virginia Beach Police or call 9-1-1 if there is an emergency.