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Ontario opens its arms to the needy

At an enclave near the airport, homeless people can get shelter, food and some social services.

February 03, 2008|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

Over the last six months, more than 250 homeless people have pitched tents near the Ontario airport, creating a burgeoning shantytown that sprawls across vacant lots and spills into side streets.

They call it Tent City, and for many it's a welcome refuge from the cars, bridges and offramps they usually inhabit.

"This place is the best thing they could do for us," said Teresa Pacheco, 48, of Upland. "It's got food, water and there is an outhouse."

For others, it's a nightmare.

"I hate it here. I want a house. I want a life," said a tearful Teresa Dodson, 54. "I've never been in this position before in my entire life."

Pregnant women, parolees, alcoholics, the mentally ill, people fallen on hard times: They're all here, living on donated food and water. And rather than running them out, the city has invited them in.

Unlike many communities that hide or deny such problems, Ontario has put its homeless on public display.

The city makes sure trash is picked up. Police patrol the area. Portable toilets have been set up and clean water and showers are provided. Social workers try to place residents in shelters and get help for those with drug or alcohol problems.

"I have done this kind of work for 20 years and have never encountered a city that has made the investment that Ontario has," said Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House in Santa Ana, which is helping the homeless at the site. "We have unanimous support from the City Council and city staffers. This isn't Berkeley or Santa Monica. It's a moderately conservative area, not a bunch of wild-eyed liberals."

Ontario officials don't call the place Tent City or Camp Hope as some do. They prefer "rest area." They set it up on city property just west of LA/Ontario International Airport last June to lure the local homeless away from dangerous sites.

"They were living along the railroad tracks, along the 10 Freeway at the major intersections," said Brent Schultz, director of the city's office of housing and neighborhood revitalization. "We said, 'You don't have to go, but we have created a place where you can go.' It's not a permanent solution. We are trying to keep a lid on it, but we are not putting our head in the sand. We are reaching out to people."

Ontario is spending $3 million to deal with its homeless. As of 2007, that population numbered 331, the second highest in San Bernardino County, said Isaac Jackson, the county's homeless services coordinator. The city of San Bernardino ranks first with 1,397.


Tent City started with about 30 people. It grew fast to between 250 and 300 from all over the region. And there is increasing concern that it could be getting out of control.

"I worry how it has expanded, from a standpoint of safety and resources," said City Councilman Jason Anderson. "It needs to be regulated. It's taken on a life of its own. I envision the city throttling it back to the point where it was originally envisioned, as a resource for the local homeless community."

But there are no plans to close it, he said: "You can't just flip a switch and shut it down."

At least not anymore.

Tents now cover several large dirt lots on both sides of Cucamonga Avenue. Side streets are lined with battered vans and recreational vehicles. Dogs run wild. A 6-month-old was recently found living in a tent with his mother. Authorities said they would provide better shelter for all mothers with children they find.

Police say there has been one assault, but little other crime has been reported. They have intercepted gang members they say were casing the place in order to extort money from the homeless. And they say they know that parolees had been dropped off at the site.

"We spoke with parole and that has stopped," said Ontario Police Sgt. Bryan Allen, who recently supervised a cleanup operation in the area. "We get folks who come here to gawk, and a few have even brought their children down to play. This isn't a place for kids. Many of these folks are mentally ill. There are a ton of airborne illnesses."

First-time visitors are often shocked by the sea of flapping tents with residential homes barely a block away.

"My first impression was shame on America," said Beverly Earl, director of community and emergency services for the region's Catholic Charities organization. "But you have a lot of people here who are just caught in bad circumstances. They now feel part of a community."

Residents live in donated tents with mattresses. They light fires in barrels or grills to stay warm.

High winds can topple the portable toilets, spilling their contents. Inside one, someone scrawled "God Hates Us All" in black marker.

People freely admit addictions, arrest records and mental illness. Their life stories are harrowing.

Marty Tovar, 53, yanked all the hair from his head -- "to change my look," he said. His nose is scarred from a recent attack by teenagers, his elbow dented from crashing through a car window. His knees barely function and a hip has been broken.

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