More than two dozen elementary-age students rushed off Norfolk Public Schools buses stopped in Calvert Square, eager to get home Tuesday afternoon. There to greet them were five volunteers from New Virginia Majority who waved to bus drivers, gave the group bagged snacks and ensured each child got home safely.
The nonprofit’s volunteers have spent the past month walking students home from bus stops in the St. Paul’s community as part of a pilot program to curb gun violence in the area after parents reported hearing gunfire between 3 and 5 p.m. — around the same time children are returning from school.
“These kids are coming home to violence and gunfire when they should be coming home to safety,” said Monet Johnson, lead housing justice organizer for New Virginia Majority.
Johnson said New Virginia Majority, which supports racial, gender, environmental and economic justice, posted volunteers at three Calvert Square bus stops between 3:30 and 4:45 p.m. after noticing that gunfire ceased during community events hosted by the organization. The group plans to have a stronger, more consistent presence at Young Terrace bus stops in the future.
“We are trying to donate the same presence at these bus stops to at least get the kids inside,” Johnson said.
The nonprofit initially spoke with St. Paul residents about flooding and mold impacting their homes, but quickly learned gun violence was plaguing the area with little to no action from city leaders. The St. Paul’s community wraps around the heart of downtown Norfolk and includes three public housing communities home to more than 4,000 people — Calvert Square, Young Terrace and Tidewater Gardens. All three are largely poor, minority communities that Johnson said have been neglected by the city.
“Ironically, these neighborhoods are part of downtown Norfolk. (City council members) keep saying there’s a lot of violence downtown and shutting down businesses. There is violence downtown, but it’s in these communities and it’s attacking these kids,” Johnson said, adding, “Where the community starts is where the representation stops.”
According to media reports, two teenagers were shot in the Young Terrace neighborhood Saturday around 9 p.m. At least 14 shootings have occurred in the St. Paul’s area since January 2022 — three of which were fatal.
William Claud greeted his three children, ages 7, 10 and 11, at their bus stop at the intersection of Wide and Bagnall streets. While Claud doesn’t live in Calvert Square, he said he meets his kids at their bus stop to walk them to their mother’s house nearby.
“It is for the same reason (New Virginia Majority) is out here — just to be on the safe side,” Claud said.
Claud has seen the group, wearing orange vests, greeting children at the bus stops and walking them home for the past few weeks, and he said he thinks it has helped cut back on gun violence in the neighborhood during afternoon hours.
“Any criminal doesn’t want a witness,” Claud said.
New Virginia Majority has worked since September to have City Council or the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority install additional stop signs and speed bumps to slow traffic. The group has also called for the installation of emergency call boxes that will add lighting and make contacting emergency services more readily available.
Their demands, Johnson said, have fallen on deaf ears.
“The occasional police patrols are not enough. We need more from the city — the children of St. Paul are just as important as any other children in Norfolk,” Johnson said.
Vincent Hodges, a volunteer manning the intersection of Wide and Bagnall streets, said New Virginia Majority’s presence in the neighborhoods is all about making the community aware that help is available to them.
“Most the parents here are single Black women working 2-3 jobs. They make it home from one job in time to see their kid get off the bus and change their uniform before heading to another job,” Hodges said. “But the residents have more than they think they have. They have us, and we have time and knowledge and resources.”
Hodges said the idea of New Virginia Majority “taking back the bus stops” is to encourage residents to assist in the effort.
“We want residents to know we are out here doing this for you, but to sustain it, we need to do it with you,” Hodges said.