Police and city workers ejected the 20 to 30 residents of Charleston’s “Tent City” along the Elk River on Tuesday afternoon, after pressure from property owner Waste Management to remove the people living along the Elk River beneath the Spring Street Bridge.
“It’s not prudent for us to allow that situation to exist where people are sleeping along the riverbank in 5-degree weather,” Charleston Mayor Danny Jones said at a news conference Tuesday.
Jones said he made the decision to get rid of Tent City last week, although the move Tuesday came after the two coldest nights of the winter. It also came one day after a story on the front page of the Gazette-Mail about Tent City.
On Monday, homeless people at Tent City were accepting donations from people worried about them staying warm this winter. Local residents brought members of the tiny community blankets, tents, sleeping bags, coats and propane heaters as the weather turned colder.
On Tuesday afternoon, they were packing up their things to go, although tents and numerous other items were left behind at the homeless encampment, located along the Elk River near the Spring Street Bridge.
“Almost two and half years I’ve lived here,” one man told a reporter. “All of a sudden they’ve got a problem with it?”
George Lively, an outreach specialist with social services agency Prestera Center, said that all of the people living at Tent City would be taken to local homeless shelters or to stay with friends. He knew of one man who had disappeared, but he said he planned to drive around to find that man and make sure he was sheltered Tuesday night.
He was asked if someone could end up on the streets.
“I won’t let that happen,” he said.
The mayor said that despite some of the Tent City residents saying they’re “down on their luck,” there are plenty of shelters providing places for them to sleep.
City officials have found, he said, that those at Tent City who refuse to go to shelters, “don’t want to obey any rules, and they want the ability to drink around the clock.”
Those who refuse to leave the site or return after Tuesday may be charged with trespassing.
Jones said he met with officials from Waste Management Tuesday morning, which owns the property on which Tent City stands. The mayor said the company and the city could be sued if something happened to Tent City residents, who build fires to keep warm and pose a potential risk to the surrounding wooded area and nearby gas lines. Jones said people have unplugged Waste Management’s company truck chargers to run electricity to the encampment.
“People would ask, why didn’t you do something about this?” Jones said.
Charleston Police Chief Brent Webster said while he doesn’t recall police ever responding to reports of violence at Tent City, officers have “arrested people out of there with serious warrants before.”
Waste Management spokeswoman Amanda Marks said Tuesday that the dismantling of Tent City was “unfortunate” and the health and safety of its occupants were a main priority.
During the company’s discussions with Jones, Marks said, some of the employees at the company’s nearby hauling center had concerns for their safety after they were “approached by disorderly occupants” of Tent City. She added that employees have notified residents that they were trespassing on private property.
Several people at Tent City blamed Waste Management for Tuesday’s eviction.
“I’m not mad at you guys,” one man told a police officer. “I’m mad at Waste Management because we do nothing down here. We live.”
Police were quick to point to the company. “We’re just here on behalf on Waste Management,” one officer said.
Jones said he’s received multiple complaints from nearby businesses, such as the Foodland on Spring Street.
Foodland General Manager Jeff Joseph said some residents of Tent City come into the store to bathe in its restrooms. He said they’ve also destroyed property on multiple occasions.
“It’s really gotten bad in the last year … when it grew to a certain level, it was really out of control,” Joseph said. “It’s very damaging not just to us, but to all the area businesses.”
The biggest challenge moving forward won’t be ensuring the homeless don’t return to Tent City, but where they’ll go from here.
“People think if you disperse a bunch of folks that have camped out like that, the problem goes away. No, the problem just goes somewhere else,” Jones said. “They’ll wind up somewhere else — maybe on people’s porches, maybe in peoples yards — and we get those complaints and have to shoo them off.”
Jones was steadfast in his assertion that there are plenty of resources for the city’s roughly 400 homeless people; that’s part of why they’re drawn to Charleston.
“I understand, they want to camp out and live like a commune,” he said. “That’s their business, they just can’t do it there.”
One woman, who said she had lived there for 10 years, said a man who previously lived at the encampment had been calling Waste Management and threatening to burn down the company as well as Tent City.
“That’s exactly what caused this,” she said.
There were raised voices and curses. One man blamed it on the Gazette-Mail. “They plastered us on the front page of the newspaper,” he said.
There were also tears. A woman named Vallary, who had lived there for about six months, was smiling, cheerful and welcoming on Monday. On Tuesday, she was crying.
“Why would you do this to people?” she asked a police officer. “We’ve finally gotten it warm down here.”
Reach Erin Beck at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5163 or follow @erinbeck wv on Twitter. Reach Elaina Sauber at elaina.sauber@wvgazettemail, 304-348-3051 or follow @ElainaSauber on Twitter.