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Tent City's homeless need Ontario roots

To improve camp conditions, officials will evict those who can't prove they once lived in the city.

March 14, 2008|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

Citing health and safety concerns, the city of Ontario next week will dramatically reduce the size of a homeless encampment known as Tent City by expelling those residents who cannot prove clear ties to the city.

Starting Monday, anyone who can't provide documents showing they once lived in Ontario will be given a bus or taxi ride back to where they came from.

The homeless will be fitted with color-coded bands around their arms or wrists that will designate their status.

"In July we established the region's first homeless service area and since then it has swelled tenfold, attracting over 400 people from as far away as Florida," said Brent Schultz, director of housing and neighborhood revitalization for Ontario. "There are real health and safety concerns out there and we want to regulate this better."

Tent City sprawls across a half dozen vacant lots in a residential neighborhood near Ontario International Airport. It was set up to lure the homeless away from bridges and overpasses and get them into a central location where they could live largely unmolested. Water, toilets and tents were provided and various charities serve food each day.

But what had been intended as a place for Ontario's estimated 140 homeless quickly became a magnet for the entire region's homeless.

Schultz said the threat of disease, increasingly unsanitary conditions and crime were among the reasons Tent City is being reined in. At least one person has been stabbed at the encampment and police have arrested several people, including those with parole violations.

Under the new regulations, Tent City will hold no more than 170 people. Anyone entering will be processed and given a permit to stay up to 90 days. No pets will be allowed and police will be permanently stationed inside. The area will also be fenced.

"Ontario is doing its share to serve its homeless and we would like other cities to do their part for their homeless," Schultz said. "We are not proposing to shut the place down but to improve upon it and bring it more under control. It's still a temporary solution to the problem and we will work with San Bernardino County to find a permanent one."

He said the residents would be given time to locate documents before being forced to leave.

Volunteers at the site questioned how people living in tents would have birth certificates, utility bills or other documents on hand to show they were Ontario residents.

"The people here are down and in survival mode and all they want to think about is where they will eat or sleep tonight," said Paul Varner, a Tent City volunteer. "A lot of these people are mentally ill and they don't have what it takes to understand what is going to happen. Ontario did a good thing here but now it's time for other cities to help."

Last week, police began towing away motor homes and campers parked along the streets beside Tent City. They targeted those that didn't start or were missing tires, engines or transmissions. Many homeless lived inside the vehicles.

Isaac Jackson, homeless services coordinator for San Bernardino County, said he would be at Tent City on Monday trying to help those who must leave.

"I think this whole thing has been a learning process," he said. "I think Ontario learned that if you are going to house a large group of people, you want to do it in a building. And also you need to take management of the area earlier, before it gets out of control."

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david.kelly@latimes.com

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