December 22, 2014

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Lorain police evict homeless from railroad company property

A group of homeless people who lived in the area known as "tent city" on property in Lorain owned by CSX Railroad were told to leave Friday. KRISTIN BAUER/CHRONICLE

A group of homeless people who lived in the area known as “tent city” on property in Lorain owned by CSX Railroad were told to leave Friday. KRISTIN BAUER/CHRONICLE

LORAIN — The Lorain Police Department and CSX Railroad are evicting more than a dozen homeless people from a wooded area just off Broadway and telling them they have 48 hours to vacate the tent city.

The edict was handed down without warning Friday morning. The many people that call the overgrown area home said they were away showering at the St. Joseph Overnight Homeless Shelter on nearby West 15th Street and returned to find their surroundings trashed. Yellow signs were tacked to trees and placed on tables warning people about trespassing on the property.

It has left many wondering what they will do next.

“I really don’t know what I’m going to do,” said Kenny Durbin, 64. “I have family, but I don’t want to put a burden on them.”

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Those living in tent city have until the end of the weekend to move.

Durbin said he ended up at tent city about three weeks ago. He lives in a burgundy and tan camping tent given to him by a local church. It was still standing Friday while he contemplated his next step.

He counts himself as one of the lucky ones.

Upon returning to tent city, many found their individual campsites trashed, with items strewn around and tents crushed. They blame Lorain police for the destruction.

“Telling us to move is one thing, but destroying our property is another thing,” said a man named K.C. “This is all people have.”

Lorain police Capt. Roger Watkins said officers did not destroy anyone’s campsite when they swept through.

“The bottom line is that is private property owned by CSX Railroad, and they do not want them there or to be liable for anything that happens with them being there,” Watkins said.

“Legally, we have to enforce the wishes of the property owner. We did that, but we did not destroy anyone’s personal property.”

Residents of tent city have until the end of the weekend to move, Watkins said. Some are eligible to go to the Haven Center run by the Neighborhood Alliance. To do so they must be willing to follow the shelter’s rules and work a case plan toward self-sufficiency.

“I know a lot of them back there don’t want to do that, but that doesn’t mean they get to stay,” Watkins said. “We have spoken to Catholic Charities to see if there is any way they can help. I don’t know what else to say.”

Carla Groleau, a spokeswoman for CSX Railroad, said the company cannot allow the tent city to stay. In order to get to the many campsites obscured from view on Broadway, the campers have to cross two sets of tracks.

“As you know, it is illegal to be on our property, as well as unsafe,” she said. “We have operations nearby that we have to be mindful of.”

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Residents of tent city say they returned to the campsite to find their belongings thrown around.

But if you ask Luis Wheeler, 40, the reason why tent city is being evicted now can be traced back to the disappearance and search for missing woman Kathleena Burke, who was last in Lorain on June 1.

Wheeler said he and Burke have three children together.

“Everyone back here loved Kat,” Wheeler said. He was holding her missing person’s flier. “I don’t think anyone back here hurt her.”

Wheeler said police have searched the campsite repeatedly since Burke was reported missing.

He thinks police want the homeless out of the area so they can search more for clues.

“It really shocked me when the officers said, ‘As soon as we get information on Kat, we will leave everyone alone,’” Wheeler said.

Watkins said police are aware that Burke was last seen near the tent city but disputes claims of targeting tent city because of her.

“We’re not saying anyone is connected, but that is the last place that we know Kathleena Burke to have been,” Watkins said. “Crimes have happened down there — assaults and attempted rapes.”

Tent city is about more than just the homeless there who are being asked to leave, said Lorain Mayor Chase Ritenauer.

“That wasn’t our decision. The city administration is not forcing them out,” he said. “But it does speak to the overall needs of the homeless population in the county.”

While the St. Joseph Overnight Homeless Shelter does allow the homeless to come in to shower a few times a week during the summer, it only opens for overnight shelter from October to April. Currently, it is looking for a new location to replace its West 15th Street facility.

At one point, it was announced that it would move into the former Horizon Daycare center at 205 W. 14th St., but that plan is not working out, Ritenauer said.

“We are continuing to look for alternatives, but there needs to be a collective approach to this program in the county,” Ritenauer said. “When you look at shelters that we do have, you will see that the people don’t all come from Lorain. Other communities need to be in on this conversation. Where would the county be if Lorain didn’t have any homeless shelters?”

In the meantime, that leaves the residents of the former tent city without a place to call home.

“I don’t know where I’m going to go,” Wheeler said. “I have already asked police if I can set my tent up in front of City Hall because I don’t know what else to do.”

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com. Follow her on Twitter @LisaRobersonCT.