HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) --"Tent City," the unofficial name of the homeless camp underneath I-565 west of downtown Huntsville has been a respite for dozens of semi-permanent homeless residents for nearly 15 years. Now, the state highway department plans to erect new fencing to control access to the area.
In a Monday interview with AL.com, ALDOT's Johnny Harris said he is sensitive to the plight of the homeless but cannot allow people to continue living in DOT's right-of-way.
As many as 45 people have been known to camp out nightly beneath an elevated section of I-565.
"The public right-of-way underneath our bridge structures is not appropriate for being turned into a long-term residential area, or even short-term," said Harris. "It's a fluid situation, but we'd like to see something accomplished as soon as possible.
The Alabama Department of Transportation division engineer for the Huntsville area said he expects city officials to come up with a plan by the first of the year for closing the large homeless camp.
Sergeant Mark Roberts with Huntsville Police Department says officials with the Huntsville-Madison County Health Department forwarded a recent complaint from a resident living near "Tent City" to DOT, which maintains the areas beside and underneath state roadways.
A barrel fire at the camp that went out of control in December 2005 scorched two interstate support columns, causing some concrete to flake off. A smaller grass fire in the same area this June forced authorities to briefly close the busy I-565/Memorial Parkway interchange.
"It's a bigger problem than just trespassing," said Harris. "We need to protect the infrastructure that's in place to protect the motoring public."
Mark Roberts says the homeless camp at the end of Stokes Street has been on the state's radar for quite some time.
"The state and the health department met," explains Roberts, "and they determined that it was time for them to move out of that area."
Roberts says there's not a definitive timeline for allowing all "Tent City" squatters to relocated. He says logistically homeless relocation can be a conundrum but also a continual work-in-progress.
Roberts says this is a concern law enforcement deals with frequently; whether it be an edict from a state entity or a complaint from a private property owner about public urination or defecation - permanence for the homeless, says Roberts, is often brief if not unrealistic.
"You have a timeline," says Roberts, "you've lived here, maybe for months or even years, but you have to move somewhere else and we even ask if we can help them, if they'll tell us where they're moving we'll try to give them an idea of whether we've had complaints or if we think that area will work for them."
Roberts explains this is often a repeating cycle. He says about four months ago "North Camp" behind Applebee's Restaurant on south Memorial Parkway was the base for even more homeless who populated "Tent City". He says the private property owner became ready to develop that land meaning the urban residents had to pack up and shove off.
Roberts says campers were given plenty of notice and they have now all relocated. But the push to reduce large homeless camps is becoming more challenging in Huntsville. Breaking groups up and scattering individual transients is difficult because homeless need to be located nearby the community resources afforded them; that's generally only about two or three areas in the city - like homeless shelters or organizations like First Stop on Stokes Street.
"We don't want them to become complacent out there because then the numbers will go up."
First Stop Executive Director Tashaunda Weeks says there is a much larger issue at hand than simply finding a different location where homeless population can only be temporarily accepted or tolerated.
"We don't want them to get comfortable in their situations because our goal here at First Stop is we want to help them self-sufficient leading to a permanent supportive housing placement," explains Weeks.
Weeks says asking those with no stability, no transportation, usually no income to relocate is unfortunate but says the inevitable will hopefully become a catalyst for something greater at work in the community.
"It's kind of a wakeup call for them because now they have to take some more responsibility but I think it's actually going to give us the motivation to want to do even more out here."
"It's about more than just taking a person out of a camp and putting them in another location," says Lineise Arnold, Executive Director of North Alabama Coalition for the Homeless. Arnold says due to issues ranging from addiction to metal health, shelter environments - while not suitable for all homeless - can sometimes be the best option for those living on the streets.
"We want them to be able to utilize the shelters, work with case managers so they can get some intense services," says Arnold, "they can then be assisted with transitioning from homelessness to self-sufficiency; by working with case managers to get benefits, fill out housing applications, by working with a case manager to refer them to jobs or get job readiness skills or even education opportunities."
Huntsville Police say some "Tent City" residents left over the weekend but have now returned as they continue to try find a suitable location to settle. Wednesday afternoon there were only 5 people camping under the overpasses.
One homeless naval veteran said he came back to just until he can find a better place. One man named Robert told WHNT News 19, "I've been here for years and they have tried this as long as I can remember - I'll be here until they drag my ass out - there's nowhere else to go."