LORAIN - A homeless encampment near the city`s downtown was once a place where outreach workers could find those who shunned traditional shelters.
But the wooded area behind the former Gaylord`s Department Store at 21st Street and Elyria Avenue has been cleared, scattering the homeless to the winds, advocates for the area`s homeless population said.
"Tent City," as some called it, was bulldozed about two weeks ago, said Carla Hartman, P.A.T.H. coordinator with Gathering Hope House, a local mental health facility. She went there looking for a group of homeless men she had been working with and instead discovered freshly turned earth and a huge Dumpster in the distance.
"The hardest thing is that I feel bad because at one point we went to the gentlemen and told them the area was going to be cleared," Hartman said. "But it happened before we could give them a heads up. A sense of trust had been built, but we weren`t able to give them other accommodations. That`s the worst part."
In the summer, Hartman said, the Tent City population swelled to more than a dozen men. Some are mentally ill or suffering from drug or alcohol addiction, and most have burned so many bridges with family and friends that they prefer to live in the woods.
Hartman calls them the "hard-core homeless."
They are resourceful in their attempts to construct makeshift lodgings, sometimes stringing plastic traps and wooden planks between trees to create shelter, she said.
Among the former tent city dwellers is George Smith Sr., 52, who is now staying at a shelter on Reid Avenue, just a few blocks from the former Tent City site.
Smith said he and about 10 other men had been bedding down at tent city a few weeks ago when someone came and told them they had to leave. The property is owned by Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and was next to an easement near the railroad tracks.
Lorain Safety-Service Director Andrew Winemiller said he hadn`t heard about any work being done near the site.
Smith said he hasn`t talked to any of the other men in the past few weeks, and residents at two Lorain shelters - St. Joe`s and Haven Center - said they haven`t seen any of the men from tent city except for Smith.
"I haven`t seen any of `em since we all split up," Smith said.
In the colder months, only a few men from tent city were brave enough to withstand the elements. On the blustery day that Hartman hiked back, fewer than a half-dozen men were there.
Late Thursday, not a single soul was milling around the area.
Even at its worst, the location had long served as a starting point for outreach workers like Hartman.
"A lot of the men who lived back there were hesitant about coming in for help," she said. "We were slowly working up to the point where they felt comfortable with the idea of help. Now, we don`t even know where to contact them. It`s not like they had a mailing address to begin with."
Since the discovery, Hartman has checked area shelters, scoured nearby wooded areas and walked the railroads tracks for signs of squatters. She said she will continue to do so until the men are located.
"Just because we can`t find them, doesn`t mean they aren`t out there," she said.
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