Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Homeless in Tent City losing their refuge

About 16 men and women get a one-week extension. Then, bulldozers will show up to make way for a warehouse.

Homeless in Tent City losing their refuge


Down-on-their-luck residents of Tent City, a homeless enclave in a wooded area in Bristol Borough, have next to nothing – a few tarps, blankets, and clothes. Some have a heater to warm their shelter and a chair to sit outside.

There’s no electricity, no running water.

By next Monday, they’ll need to pack up their meager belongings and find another place to call home. Their refuge is about to be leveled for a warehouse.

“I have nowhere else to go,” 46-year-old John Haacke said Monday, as eviction loomed. “I get $200 a month from welfare, I’m looking for a job, and I’m living within my means.

“I can’t find any place to rent for that kind of money,” he added. “Nobody wants you – you become a misfit.”

Haacke, a laid-off computer network specialist for IBM, and about 15 other residents did get a one-week, last-minute reprieve.

“You have until May 7, then they’ll start taking stuff down,” Bristol Borough Police Sgt. Joe Morrs announced. “My boss and the owner said you got an extra week.”

A big trash receptacle had been provided for the original deadline, and a handful of residents packed up and moved over the weekend. Some said they were moving last night, while others said they’d wait till the bulldozers arrived.  

The 23-acre site next to Lower Bucks Hospital has housed the homeless – many with physical or mental disabilities – for about 20 years. The numbers fluctuate daily, with some men and women setting up for a few weeks, others for several years.

William Yates, 23, who grew up in foster homes in Trenton, has lived in Tent City for four years, he said. He also has lived behind the nearby former Pathmark, and was planning to move last night to a wooded spot in Bensalem.

The high-school graduate said he’s looking for work – “anything that pays me.”

Yates sat outside a tent with his pit bull, Nayla, and Scott Brookshire, 51, who has been there for six weeks.

“I don’t need medication, I’m not on disability, I get $200 in food stamps a month – that’s it,” Brookshire said.

“You’re told you can look for work, but I have no transportation to get there,” he said. “Give me a bus pass so I can get around.”

Most of Tent City’s residents are men, because Bucks County has few shelters for men, Brookshire said.

“If I did drugs, I could find a place. If I was an alcoholic, I could find a place,” he said. “If you’re just on hard times, there’s nowhere to go.”

Looking to help relocate the residents in emergency shelters, Allen Johnson of the Bucks County Department of Mental Health made his way around the site.

“I want to see how many people are interested,” Johnson said.

Some could be helped by the Penndel Mental Health Center or the Lenape Valley Mental Health Center, he said.

The Bucks County Homeless Shelter in Bristol Township has 80 beds and consistently has a waiting list.    

Johnson was a volunteer for the county’s annual “point-in-time” homeless count in January. That survey found 49 individuals and one couple.

The findings included:

  • 86 percent, were men;
  • 48 percent were ages 31 to 50; 28 percent. 51-60; 14 percent, 18-30; and 10 percent, over 60;
  • 88 percent were white; 10 percent, black
  • There were 9 reported veterans. 

Jim Sandonato told Johnson he would be interested in a shelter, and his wife, Diane, who has “mental health issues,” could use help.

Sandonato has been at Tent City for two months, and his wife lives there or with her mother. “I couldn’t live with her parents,” he said.

He lost his job as a welder in 2009, after 13 years, and the couple’s three children were put in foster care a year ago. Sandonato  and his wife lost their Levittown apartment in January and lived in his Pontiac Aztek till it broke down.

He lives on $200 a month in food stamps and another $200 for temporary disability – “not physical, not mental; anxiety about everyday life.”

He gets meals and a monthly shower at nearby churches and his mail at the welfare office.

If he doesn’t get a place n a shelter, what will he do at next week’s dealine?

“It’s in God’s hands,” he said.

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About this blog
Chris Palmer covers Bucks County for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His previous work has appeared in the New York Times and on several Times blogs, including City Room, the Local East Village and SchoolBook (which has since been taken over by WNYC). Contact him at cpalmer@phillynews.com, 610 313 8212 or on Twitter, @cs_palmer.

Ben Finley covers Bucks County for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He previously worked for The Associated Press, FactCheck.org and the Bucks County Courier Times, where he won more than a dozen journalism awards from organizations including the Education Writers Association, the Society for Features Journalism and the Pennsylvania Bar Association. He grew up in Columbus, Ohio and graduated with honors from The Ohio State University with a degree in journalism. Contact him at bfinley@phillynews.com, 610-313-8118 or on Twitter, @Ben_Finley.

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