“It’s Gross!” Can City Finally Fix Eyesore At Busy 581 / Elm Ave Intersection?

For several years, a debris-strewn eyesore has marred one of the busiest intersections in the Roanoke Valley. The spot is just east of where Elm Ave [Route 24] crosses I-581, on the Southeast Roanoke side of the interstate from Elmwood Park and RU-Community Hospital. Not only ugly and dangerous, the scene at times has appeared to be a kind of tug-of-war pitting City officials seeking to keep it clean versus vagrants aiming to set up camp just steps away from Elm Avenue.

Passersby have observed a pattern: the City tidies up the lot; then trash appears; chairs, sofas, and tarps give the appearance of a semi-permanent settlement; then the City comes in again and the cycle repeats.

Not only do thousands of vehicles pass the site daily, it is also a major gateway to Southeast Roanoke, Vinton, Hardy Road, Bedford County, and the Smith Mountain Lake area.

Researching the story, on Dec. 18, 2023 The Roanoke Star emailed City Manager Bob Cowell, Mayor Sherman Lea (D), and Vice Mayor Joe Cobb (D) the following questions:

“Do you have any comment about the years-long eyesore at the busy intersection of 581 and Rt. 24, that includes piles of trash and sometimes chairs, mattresses, and even open fires not far from the brushy embankment? Some neighbors have expressed anger at the open eyesore that sometimes even includes people engaging in sexual intercourse right by busy Rt. 24.”

Despite having the two-highest positions on City Council, neither Lea nor Cobb responded.

It is unclear why Cobb, who is now running for mayor, was silent since he often makes pronouncements on local media about the importance of “dialogue.”

However, City Manager Cowell did answer, explaining that since the site at that time belonged to a private individual, the City had limited means to deal with the problem. Cowell did add that the owner was far behind in paying property taxes, and thus the City planned to seize the lot.

In Feb. 2024, it has been reported that the City has now taken possession of the property. Several “No Trespassing — Property of Roanoke City” signs are posted and the bare dirt site is largely clean, although what appears to be a makeshift shelter of tarps and plastic is still 20-30 yards up the embankment behind the site, just below some houses.

On Nov. 14, 2023, two Southeast residents who live just across Rt. 24 from the site expressed their frustrations via interviews with The Roanoke Star.

Jessica Ferebee, a homeowner on Highland who lives in a house her grandparents bought in the 1940s, stated, “For one, it’s dangerous. There’s been a couple of people who’ve been stabbed over there . . . they just sit right over there. I’ve walked home from church one day, and people were just right there, having sex just right in the plain open, and I was just thankful that my children weren’t with me. It’s ridiculous.”

“And it’s gross! There’s like needles all over, they sit right there and sell crack, they shoot up drugs, and leave their needles all over. It’s sad, because Roanoke is a beautiful place ….)”

When asked how long she remembered the site being an eyesore, she responded: “Last summer [2022], they literally had furniture, like they had dining room tables, couches, recliners, they were just dragging in furniture, and it was all along on the bottom part [next to Elm Avenue.] They find stuff that people put by the roadside and carry it here on shopping carts.”

Ferebee recalled a tragedy from Summer 2022: “I play the [slot machine] games a lot at the stores [the Citgo between the encampment and 581], and we were getting ready to leave, and a guy came stumbling out of there [the encampment] with his whole throat slit, pouring blood. He ended up passing away.”

Ferebee’s family has lived in Southeast for generations, and when asked if the problem has existed for decades or is more recent, she explained: “No, this is more recent. Homelessness has been an issue for awhile. A lot of people were staying under the bridge over there, and I think they ran them off. I personally would rather them be under the bridge than right in our face. There are a lot of kids in this neighborhood, seeing things they shouldn’t be subjected to, just riding their bikes outside. Kids should be able to play outside without seeing somebody smoking crack or shooting up, or stuff like that right in their face.”

“A lot of people complain that they want to get clean, but the waiting lists are so long, and a lot of people don’t have phones or ID, but they tell them they have to call [a help center] every day. Theft is a huge problem. It’s just sad.”

When asked if she had reached out to the police or City Council, she said she hadn’t recently but used to go to Council meetings. She stopped attending, though, because of work, busyness, kids, “and plus, it was just a lot of talking about things, but never no action, and I just kind of felt like I was wasting my time. A lot of good ideas get brought up, and talked about, and people say that they’re going to implement this […] and that, and then, it just doesn’t get done. You don’t ever see the action behind the words. We could talk about it till we’re blue in the face, but what are we gonna do about it?”

Dennis Piner, who has lived directly across Elm Ave. from the site for seven years, claims the spot has been a problem for as long as he’s lived there. “They do drugs over there, everything. Drink. I don’t know why they don’t put a fence around there, so they can’t get up in there. Look how trashy it looks!”

Referring to the big sheets of plastic up in the woods, “They’re sleeping in there. They stay up in there. Every now and then they have a fire over there, firetrucks go over there. I wish somebody would do something about it. Actually it ain’t a bad neighborhood – but looking at that – a lot of them get a check, but they waste it on drugs. They don’t care about nothing else. It’s a shame.”

Tarps along Rt. 24 that neighbors claim vagrants have been using as makeshift dwellings. Note how homes at the top could be threatened if campfires got out of control and spread up the steep, brushy hill. (photo/Scott Dreyer–11/14/23)

Pointing to a neighbor’s house, “Somebody tried to break into her house one night not that long ago, but she called the cops, and they caught the guy and they went to court. […] But other than that, they kind of stay over in that area. It still looks like a dump.”

Now that City officials have seized the property, the question is: do they have the will to keep it clean, or will the tug-of-war continue?

–Scott Dreyer


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