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Ontario's homeless feeling less welcome in Tent City

Officials set the haven up, but now they're towing the vehicles some people live in.

March 06, 2008|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

After creating a sanctuary where the homeless could eat, sleep and live without fear of harassment, the city of Ontario has begun ticketing and towing away the vehicles in which many of those transients reside.

Now, some of the estimated 300 residents of the fast-growing "Tent City" feel betrayed by officials they say promised to leave them alone if they moved into the city-run encampment near Ontario International Airport.

"I think they lied to us," said Linda Parker, who lives in a crowded, battered motor home she fears will soon be towed away. "We don't want to live this way. I feel they are stripping us of our last bit of dignity. Everything I own is in here."

City officials said that as Tent City has grown, so has the number of decrepit vehicles parked on the surrounding streets. Increased enforcement, they hope, will keep the situation from spiraling out of control.

"They have been doing this with regard to abandoned vehicles and those with expired registration in the past, it's just more visible this time," said Ontario Deputy City Manager Al Boling.

Tent City, he said, is expanding, and many of the newcomers are not from Ontario; so taking care of them means fewer resources available to the local homeless.

"The city is exploring its options in trying to provide a more managed approach to this," he said. "It is also exploring its options in addressing health and safety concerns about the rest area."

The encampment, he pointed out, was never meant to be permanent.

"But there are no plans to shut it down at this time," he said.

Police marked 20 vehicles last week and towed five Tuesday. They handed out more warnings Wednesday, saying any camper or motor home that wasn't able to move, was missing major parts or had registration expired longer than six months would be towed in three days unless moved.

Pattie Barnes, 46, learned Wednesday just how serious the warnings were.

She was sitting in her motor home when a police officer approached.

"He asked me to start it. I tried, but the battery was dead," said the tearful Barnes. "The officer wouldn't give me any time to jump-start it. He just said, 'It's mine.' "

She begged him not to take the vehicle and sobbed as it was towed away.

Barnes and her 19-year-old son Jon have been homeless and living in the motor home since her husband died more than a year ago.

"He was the sole provider," her son said. "We would park on the street or in friends' backyards, and then we heard about this place."

Last July, Ontario set aside a few vacant lots for the local homeless in an effort to lure them away from dangerous overpasses, bridges and railroad tracks. Tents were provided, food was donated and the city provided portable toilets.

The population rapidly grew from 18 to more than 300. City officials, worried about the expansion, say they want to limit the area to Ontario residents but haven't figured out how to do so.

"This place is growing bigger than they expected," said Anne Adams, who lived in Tent City for three months. "The city started something it can't finish."

Adams, who now works for Lighthouse Ministries, believes Ontario is trying to gradually thin the numbers in the camp to reassert control over it.

"If they don't want it to be permanent, why take their only means of transportation?" she asked. "The people here are homeless. They can't afford the $165 towing charge and the $65 a day storage fees."

The police say they are simply enforcing codes.

"These are the same codes we enforce on any city street," said Det. Jeff Higbee, spokesman for the Ontario Police Department. "It's still a city street, it's still city property and we still have to patrol it."

Looking around at the squalid tent sites, the roaming packs of dogs, the campfires, the portable toilets, Higbee acknowledged this was not a typical neighborhood.

"Obviously we aren't enforcing all the municipal codes," he said. "But we are going above and beyond to notify these people. We are giving them personal notification."

Many of the dozens of vehicles lining Jefferson and Washington streets are beat up, with cracked windows and critical parts missing. Some were towed to the encampment and left for use as homes.

Higbee pointed to a truck with a camper on top. It had no engine or transmission.

"That's just a metal tent," he said. "It's never going to move."

The owner begged for more time -- just 11 days.

"That's when my husband gets out of prison," she said.

An officer issued a warning to move it in 72 hours.

For many Tent City residents, the vehicles are all they own. Some have generators, heaters and refrigerators inside. The owners prefer them to living in tents and having to build fires each night to keep warm.

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