Where will all the homeless living along the river go?
D.M. targets homeless camps
People living near trails would be relocated
City officials to relocate those living near trails
By JASON CLAYWORTH
REGISTER STAFF WRITER
Copyright 2006, Des Moines Register and Tribune Company
January 20, 2006
Des Moines city leaders want to remove dozens of makeshift homeless camps that can be seen by users of new recreational trails near downtown.
Officials emphasize they will first target the homemade huts that have been abandoned, then work with homeless advocates to relocate people who live in other camps.
It is unclear how many people the proposal would affect. Details of the plan will be discussed at a private meeting today. The meeting will include city officials and representatives from two nonprofit groups that work with Polk County's estimated 5,000 homeless people.
"We want to approach this with compassion for the people who are there," acting City Manager Rick Clark said Thursday. "What has happened, I think, is that a lot of these areas weren't very visible, but now we've got trails, and I think the potential for conflict is greater."
The targeted campsites are largely in the Gray's Lake and Meredith Trail areas, where roughly $9 million has been spent on improvements in the past five years. Some of the trails now overlook homeless camps that have cropped up regularly along the Raccoon River for several years.
The city has traditionally employed a hands-off approach unless the campers cause trouble. Clark said the city has fielded recent complaints but declined to identify the individuals or groups that asked for the cleanup.
Police Capt. Michael Shay said he cannot recall any assaults on the downtown trails that could be attributed to the homeless, "but those trails haven't been there very long."
Sen. Matt McCoy, a Des Moines Democrat and vice president of Downtown Community Alliance, a nonprofit group composed of business leaders, said the alliance has lodged no formal complaints against the camps.
"It's the city's initiative, and I'll just leave it at that," McCoy said.
Meredith Corp.'s $2 million donation in 2004 linked Gray's Lake Park with downtown. The trail opened last fall with lights and emergency call boxes used to alert police in emergencies.
Trail user John Sarasio of Des Moines called the camps "waterfront property that pays no taxes." He said the city won't easily reconcile beautification efforts with empathy for the poor.
"It's a hard one," he said. "They're either here or they go someplace else."
Some camps have popped up in the suburbs in the past few years. Advocates fear the city's planned action will push more homeless away from shelters and other services.
"It's always a concern about where homeless people are going to stay," said Mike Peterson, an outreach worker for Iowa Homeless Youth Centers.
Peterson's group has agreed to work with the city to identify vacant camps that will be targeted for destruction.
Police Chief William McCarthy said any concern on the part of trail users is a matter of false perception rather than real threats to personal safety.
He said no homeless person will be forced to move until a reasonable solution is agreed on by the city and advocates.
Glenn Orr, 23, lives in one of the camps and plans to provide input on the best way to move them. Orr has been without a permanent home since he was 18 years old.
"We're only down here because we literally have nowhere else to go," he said Thursday.
Peterson believes the city needs a good alternative. Seattle, for example, has what is called "Tent City," a supervised area for about 100 homeless people who can stay up to 90 days.
"When you're talking about pushing people out from where they live, you need to have an alternative place for them to go," he said.
City Councilwoman Christine Hensley dislikes the tent idea. She favors working with homeless advocates to provide more shelters.
"Personally, the tent idea is not the image I want for Des Moines," she said.
Howard Matalba, a homeless-outreach worker with Iowa Homeless Youth Centers, noted that the riverfront area is already an unofficial "tent city."
An established temporary site with running water would help many homeless people get on their feet and be more sanitary, he said.
People who live in the camps fashion tents and huts out of scrap wood, metal and discarded clothing. Some of the camps have furniture, kerosene stoves and fences to keep out unwanted visitors.
Bill Throckmorton, marketing manager for Bike World Iowa, frequently rides the downtown trails and has contact with thousands of riders every year. He doesn't believe there's a fear of the homeless on the part of trail users.
"Quite honestly, I've never heard this issue even mentioned," he said.
Mayor Frank Cownie said it's not in the city's best interest to force homeless people out of the camps unless officials provide solutions to help them.
"This is not an easy issue," he said.
Jean Brown, executive director of Churches United Shelter, 205 15th St., said her group will help the city find a solution.
Brown noted, however, that the area's shelters are already overcrowded, which she believes has contributed to more camps. She called the city's efforts "intelligent and compassionate."
"I really think they're doing the best they can to do the right thing and not bully people," Brown said.
"but those trails haven't been there very long." The Captain is implying that assaults will be attributed to the homeless.
Maybe this has already been stated, but aren't there more assaults on homeless people than by homeless people?
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