Union Pacific forces homeless off property

Published on Tuesday, 28 January 2014 23:24 - Written by REBECCA HOEFFNER rhoeffner@tylerpaper.com

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Volunteers from several ministries and their homeless friends scrambled Monday night and Tuesday to move the belongings of Tent City, under a threat of citation with the Union Pacific Police.

Several groups lived in tents in a wooded area less than 100 yards from the train tracks and thought they had originally been given until Jan. 31 to vacate the property, which belongs to Union Pacific. But on Monday, Union Pacific police told some residents they had to leave.

“I was getting frantic calls all day,” said John Walton, associate pastor of Church Under a Bridge, which ministers to the homeless population.

As the volunteers and the homeless took down tents and packed up sleeping bags and other items in the below-freezing temperatures Tuesday morning, a train passed in the background.

Union Pacific officials said they followed a warning that they issued earlier.

“We specifically told them they were trespassing and encouraged them to find another place to stay as soon as possible,” Raquel Espinoza, director of corporate relations and media, wrote in an email. “In an effort to be sensitive to their situation, we gave them four weeks and said action would be taken against anyone who was on the property the last week of January. They were also told items remaining on the property would be removed on Jan. 31. We are simply following the timeline we gave them, which included four weeks time to find a different place to stay. (I am not sure if they misinterpreted the Jan. 31 date, but they were specifically told verbally and in writing.)”

The residents complied with the company’s police on Monday, and with help from ministry leaders have been packing up and looking for a new place to stay. A donor stepped forward and offered a U-Haul, another paid for four hotel rooms for three days.

“There’s some good people out there,” Walton said.

Tuesday morning, ministry leaders and the Tyler Police Department looked for a place for those evicted from Tent City to stay.

Tim Harris, founder of homeless ministry Ps. 91, is hoping to buy a piece of land nearby. In the meantime, Harris has been working on an agreement with Tyler Steel that they can stay on the company’s property adjacent to Union Pacific’s. Then Harris hopes to buy a piece of property for $7,000 with money from donors, he said.

“It’s a big battle, but I see us coming out on top,” Harris said. “I’m trying to be on the up and up and respectful with the railroad. What God has started, they can’t stop.”

The residents of Tent City had lived there for several years. It wasn’t until an incident of someone blocking the train tracks that officials were alerted to their presence last month.

Having the Union Pacific officials come in and tell the group they had to move immediately was “discombobulating,” Shane Trull, 26, said.

Trull is one of the residents staying at a hotel until a solution can be found.

Nonprofit officials are asking Tyler residents to call the city and Mayor Barbara Bass and urge a convening of the homeless roundtable.

As far as Walton knows, he said, no one has to pay a citation yet.

“But you know how that goes,” he said. “We don’t want to cause trouble, but at the same time, shouldn’t we all be loving our neighbors as ourselves?”