Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Saturday, October 6, 2012
Tent City residents say more moving in as they ready to move out
Posted: Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Phil DiNardo looked forward to his eviction on Tuesday. He was disappointed that it was postponed for a week.
“It’s still pressure. It’s a mental stress” said DiNardo, better known as “Papa Bear” by those in the county’s oldest and largest homeless camp, where he has lived for the last three years.
At 63, DiNardo is the oldest resident. He vows he’ll be the last to leave.
Phil "Papa Bear" DiNardo
His dissatisfaction at an unexpected 11th-hour reprieve for his fellow Tent City residents drew a quick reaction from Allen Johnson, who works for the Bucks County Department of Behavioral Health.
“Where were you going to go?” he asked DiNardo.
After a long pause, DiNardo — who has been homeless 11 years — conceded.
That reality has started sinking in for the remaining homeless in the camp, who say they’ve long grown accustomed to regular, but empty, threats of eviction. This new deadline, though, has created a new urgency among local county and private agencies and groups who’ve been working with camp residents to relocate them into temporary or permanent housing.
On Monday, Bristol Borough police Chief Arnold Porter announced that the property owner, JRZ LLC, has given the homeless a one-week extension to leave the campsite, which is located in woods behind Lower Bucks Hospital in Bristol.
“The property owner felt another seven days would be helpful to the homeless for them to move their property from that location,” Porter said.
But, he emphasized, the construction equipment will begin removing trees and what’s left of the camp starting May 7 to make room for a planned 253,000-square foot warehouse.
Tent City has quietly existed on and off for at least 20 years. But Bristol officials started searching for the property’s owner in 2010, after the hospital filed a complaint, citing concerns about patient and employee safety.
The homeless residents who live there occupy camping tents or large wood and tarp-covered structures. They use propane-fueled heaters, lights and stoves. Most say they rely on disability checks, charity and scavenging nearby shopping center trash bins.
Many have mental or physical disabilities, chronic health problems or substance abuse issues, all obstacles to finding decent housing.
Organizers of a new faith-based group called The Way Home say they’re making slow, but steady progress on their effort to secure subsidized supervised housing for some of the camp residents.
On Monday the group found out it was approved for federal nonprofit status, meaning it can start accepting donations, board member Clyde Beury said. It is also looking to find a local Realtor with a property and landlord willing to work with them.
The group’s plan is to provide subsidized supervised housing for four people at a time. Tenants will have to pass drug and alcohol, mental health and criminal background checks. They’ll also have to contribute 30 percent of their income toward rent.
“We are definitely hoping and continuing, as we have been for the last month, to locate places,” Beury added.
Some camp residents have managed to find new homes on their own. Over the weekend nearly half of the 16 residents left the camp, remaining residents and visitors said Tuesday. But many of those who moved on opted to set up tents in other nearby wooded areas.
Mitchell Lanier is 22. He left the camp Friday after securing a bed at a local halfway house. He lived in the camp about a month, after traveling by bus to Pennsylvania from South Carolina to seek new opportunities.
Lanier says he discovered the hidden camp when walking by nearby Silver Lake. He found a trail and followed it to Tent City, where he asked if he could pitch his tent. Sure, he was told.
“They are the nicest people out here,” he added. “They treat you good.”
The nine or so holdouts have been mostly resistant or skeptical of outside offers involving area homeless shelters, substance abuse or mental health treatment centers, volunteers and advocates said.
“Sure, some people in the camp drink a lot, but what do you expect?” DiNardo asked.
“You get us out of the woods, you see how quick they clean up,” he added.
Tiffany Duffy is a regular camp visitor. Her cousin Billy lives there and has been watching over her dog, Dutch, until Tiffany and her husband can move into their new apartment.
“They don’t have anything, but they’ll feed you. They’re sweethearts. I love every one of them,” she said Tuesday. “It’s like one big family.”
And what worries people like Johnson is that while the camp is preparing to shut down, people continue moving in.
“They’re still coming,” he said.
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: jciavaglia@phillyBurbs.com; Twitter: @jociavaglia