Union Pacific Railroad requests ET homeless to leave ‘Tent City’

Published on Sunday, 12 January 2014 22:36 - Written by KELLY GOOCH kgooch@tylerpaper.com

Jody Colston has spent more than three years camped in northeast Tyler woods.

Colston, a homeless man in his 50s, is able to seek warmth in his tent and has a place to sleep.

But he and others who camp in the area known as Tent City will soon have to leave per the request of Union Pacific Railroad.

Union Pacific spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza said the railroad initially found out about Tent City in December, when a special agent identified that there were homeless people camped on the Union Pacific property.

“Our special agent had to respond to a report of someone (unrelated to Tent City) sleeping on the tracks … but discovered these individuals were staying on the property,” Ms. Espinoza said.

Once Union Pacific confirmed that the homeless were on the railroad’s property, safety concerns were explained, she said, and they were given until late January or early February to find another place.

Ms. Espinoza said the area is not far from an active rail line, and Union Pacific is concerned that risk could be involved.

She said it isn’t safe to have somebody so close to the rail line, and Union Pacific “want(s) to do what we can to ensure that these individuals are safe.”

“We’re trying to be as understanding as possible. We certainly want to be sensitive to their situation. It is our hope that they find a place to stay that’s safe,” she said.

One man, who did not want his name printed, said he isn’t sure where he wants to go, but he might move in with a friend.

Colston said he was displeased to learn he had to move, and he and others have been trying to figure out future plans.

He said he might be able to move to San Antonio.

Tom Campbell, 59, said said he was going to move out when his veteran benefits began but stayed to look after his brother, who lost his commercial drivers license because of a vision problem.

He said he could end up in Texarkana or Waco.

Locally, The Salvation Army is “here to help,” said Chantel Millin, community and corporate relations coordinator for The Salvation Army.

“We try our best to not turn anyone away. A bed is available for them definitely as long as the background check” is good, she said.

Even if someone is not able to stay in The Salvation Army’s housing facilities, the kitchen is open and provides three meals per day, she said.

Eric Burger, executive director of the Hiway 80 Rescue Mission in Longview, said the facility has a full-time worker who does outreach in Tyler and works with people in the camp area. However, he said that person, who had relationships with homeless people in Tent City, recently had surgery and will likely be out of commission for about a month. In the meantime, he said, the staff is stepping up to cover for him.

He said the rescue mission continues reaching out into the camps and helping those who want to get out. He said that might include connecting them with The Salvation Army in Tyler or bringing them to the Longview shelter.

“No one needs to be in a camp,” he said. “We’re not turning people away.”

Pat Mallory, executive director of Gateway to Hope Day Resource Center in Tyler, said the resource center offers laundry services, clothing, showers and a computer lab, among other things. However, she said Gateway to Hope closes at 4 p.m., so the homeless must sleep somewhere else.

“We’re just trying to get them on their feet,” she said. “It is just devastating for the group. They have nowhere else to go.”

Christina Fulsom, with the East Texas Human Needs Network, said she hopes some in Tent City will take advantage of the Hiway 80 Rescue Mission and The Salvation Army.

In the meantime, she said community service providers hope to have a homelessness round table and discuss possible long-term solutions.

“I’m hoping that this will sort of push us to take action that’s desperately needed,” she said.

Ms. Fulsom said this is a serious social issue that needs to be addressed, and it is important to first give the homeless a safe place to live before addressing other issues and barriers.

Ms. Fulsom said some Tent City residents have disabilities and need permanent supportive housing, but that is not available.

The next step for the group short-term, she said, will be to identify their needs and what they are eligible for.

“The big question is ‘How do we help them?’” Ms. Fulsom said.

Tim McCellon, founder of Cyclists 4 Love, and missionary Tim Harris are trying to do just that.

McCellon said Cyclists 4 Love plans to serve food to the homeless later this month and also are bringing Go Phones, as well as nonperishable items.

“We’re concerned. We don’t know where they’re going to go. Without an overnight shelter, it’s hard for those people,” McCellon said.

Harris said earlier this month that he was looking at the possibility of purchasing some land, and if money is raised and an offer can be made, he intends to set up an emergency shelter camp there.

As far as the city of Tyler, Tyler Assistant City Manager Susan Guthrie said via email that the city is not directly involved.

“The railroad has its own law enforcement unit, so as it works toward requiring the campers to move, it will handle the communication directly,” she wrote.

In regard to future involvement, she said it depends on where the campers move.

“If it is not within the city limits, we would likely not have any involvement,” she wrote. “Our hope is that they access services that are available to assist them. For example, Salvation Army currently has capacity to provide shelter as they (Tent City occupants) move from their current location.”