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News :: Social Welfare
Lowell police shut down riverside homeless camp
24 Nov 2008
Happy Thanksgiving: get out a' town!
Lowell police shut down riverside homeless camp
By Chris Camire, ccamire (at) lowellsun.com
Updated: 11/21/2008 08:19:31 AM EST


LOWELL -- Just after 9 a.m. yesterday, two police cars pull into a rough patch of land nestled along the Concord River off Rogers Street.

Hidden by trees and brush, about a dozen homeless men and women grow quiet as the officers tell them they have 45 minutes to pack up their belongings and leave.

Many of them have been living in tents in this wooded area since the summer.

"Somebody called and doesn't want them there," explains Officer John Callahan. "People are buying these new houses, and they don't want to look out and see fires and homeless people in their backyard. You can't blame them."

Next to this makeshift tent-city, 35 townhouses are being constructed on the site of the former Old Mother Hubbard dog-food factory on the corner of Rogers and Perry streets. Starting price: $199,900.

The project's general contractor is Kazanjian Enterprises, owned by City Councilor Alan Kazanjian. Kazanjian said yesterday he doesn't know what prompted the police to force the homeless out.

"I had nothing to do with that," Kazanjian said. "Someone told me they were there, but I absolutely did not get involved. Believe me, I had nothing to do with it."

Lowell Police Superintendent Kenneth Lavallee said he, too, was unsure what prompted police to evacuate the campground. He said he plans to look into it.

"We're working to resolve some of the issues facing the homeless as best we can," said Lavallee.

A 44-year-old woman named Tammy had been living at the camp since October when she and her boyfriend, Mike, could no longer afford the apartment they were living in.

Tammy, who would not give her last name, said a nerve condition prevents her from working. Mike hasn't been able to find a job, she said.

The couple said the people living in the camp welcomed them with open arms at a low point in their lives.

"Everyone there is friendly," said Tammy, who walks with crutches. "It's like a little community where everyone took care of anybody."

After being evicted yesterday, Tammy and Mike headed to a friend's house. They considered going to the Lowell Transitional Living Center on Middlesex Street, but said they would prefer to sleep in a tent outdoors.

"Under the covers, it's not so cold," said Tammy. "And the fire keeps us warm during the day."

The Lowell Transitional Living Center is nearly filled to capacity. All 60 of the male beds are currently occupied. Of 22 female beds, eight are available.

Peter Duda, the shelter's executive director, said the homeless must pass a urine test to make sure they are drug-free before they can be given a bed. They must be sober, too.

"We have outreach workers who are trying to work with some of the people who live in tents to come into the center to get housing," said Duda. "We try to hook them up with services."

When police first arrive at the Rogers Street camp, located on public land, some of the homeless complain that the sudden order to leave does not give them enough time to find alternative shelter.

Tammy pleads with the officers to let her and her friends stay until the weekend.

"These aren't legal living accommodations," Callahan tells her. "This isn't an eviction from an apartment."

The homeless quickly pack up their tents and gather as many personal belongings as they can carry away. They leave much more behind.

A mattress, three shopping carts and two bicycles are abandoned. A plastic tarp to block out the rain is left suspended from trees.

Smoke rises from a fire smoldering in a makeshift hearth. A spice rack stocked with garlic, oregano, cinnamon and crushed red pepper sits on a wooden staircase leading up to a tree trunk.

A sign nailed to a wooden post reads: "Nobody watches what I do, until I don't do it."

An American flag ripples in the breeze.

"We lost our jobs. We lost our apartment. And now we're losing the woods," says one man, as he takes some wet shirts down from a clothesline.

Homeless campsites like this one are scattered across the city.

Along the banks of the Merrimack River, not far from UMass Lowell's North Campus, sits a small tent-city. At most of the sites, homeless men and women have pitched tents to shield them from the weather.

Most of the camps are near rail lines, water and liquor stores.

In July, police kicked about a dozen people out of a hidden collection of tents in a wood- and brush-covered area between the Lord Overpass and the Pawtucket Canal that was littered with empty liquor bottles and heroin needles.

Police said prostitution in the Lower Highlands decreased significantly after the homeless hideout was busted.

Employees at several businesses near the Rogers Street camp said the homeless did not cause such problems in the neighborhood.

Vick Kumar, a clerk at the Tedeschi convenience store at 103 Rogers Street, said the homeless would come into his store and buy frozen dinners. Kumar said he would help them cook the food in the store's microwave.

"They never cause any trouble," said Kumar. "Some of them come for coffee in the morning. In the late afternoon, they come in to get something to eat."

Kazanjian says while the homeless need help, it is unacceptable to allow them to live in tents across the city.

He would also like to see the Lowell Transitional Living Center relocated to Tewksbury Hospital, which is operated by the state Department of Public Health. He says the hospital has the land, staff and facilities to care for the homeless, whether they have substance-abuse problems or are just down on their luck.

"It is a perfect facility, not because it is out of the city but because they have the land and plenty of rooms," said Kazanjian. "We have to do something. This city is moving forward. We cannot have people living in tents."

Staff writer Jennifer Myers contributed to this report.

This work is in the public domain
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