Homeless encampment just off the Capital Area Greenbelt trail, near S. Cameron Street in Harrisburg (Photo via theBurg).
By Maddie Gittens
For several months, Erik has lived in a wooded area just off the Capital Area Greenbelt in Harrisburg.
He’s part of the small community of residents experiencing homelessness who have not only pitched their tents there, but have made a home, building fences, pathways and fire pits.
Two encampments are tucked within the trees, near the Shanois Street access to the Greenbelt, off of S. Cameron Street. On Wednesday morning, a few bicyclists rode along the trail as Erik shared his frustration over a recent announcement that he, along with his neighbors, must pack up and leave.
Harrisburg has stated that the 15 to 20 residents of the two nearby encampments will be evicted on Thursday, June 1. The notice was issued by the city two weeks ago, on May 18.
“I don’t know what everybody’s going to do,” said Erik, who asked that his last name not be used.
The news comes a few months after Harrisburg cleared out a long-time encampment under the Mulberry Street Bridge on S. Cameron Street. City officials said that most of the people at the Greenbelt encampment are not those who were displaced from the bridge.
According to Matt Maisel, communications director for the city, the majority of the Greenbelt encampments are on privately owned land, while a small portion is on city-owned land. Maisel said that both pressure from the Capital Area Greenbelt Association, which holds its annual Tour de Belt on June 4, and the owner of the private property caused them to issue the eviction notice.
“We decided that this area has to be cleared out,” Maisel said. “Our hands are tied here.”
When the city moved residents out of the Mulberry Street Bridge encampment, they designated a space near S. Cameron and Magnolia streets to relocate people. However, Maisel said that only a few people chose to move there, and they left after about a week.
The current Greenbelt encampments are down the road from that location.
With this eviction, Maisel said that the city is not providing a space for people to relocate.
“If we continue to come up with other temporary locations, it becomes an expectation,” he said. “We are here to end unsheltered homelessness.”
With the move-out date a day away, tents and belongings still remained in the encampments on Wednesday morning.
One woman who asked to be referred to by her first initial, “Y,” has lived at the encampment for about six months. She has set up several tents, which she offers to others who need help, and made a fire pit to cook homemade pizza for neighbors.
Y became homeless after a medical emergency caused her to lose her job as a home healthcare aide, she said. For a while, she lived in an abandoned house, but moved to the Greenbelt encampment when the house was demolished.
As of Wednesday, all of her belongings remained at the camp.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. “I have to move this all by myself. We put a lot of time and effort into this place. I don’t know where we are going to go.”
According to Dennise Hill, Harrisburg’s director of building and housing development, and a member of the Capital Area Coalition on Homelessness (CACH), local homelessness service providers visit the encampments daily, and others weekly, to provide resources.
Erik said that one organization dropped off bins for people to use for packing. But so far, he doesn’t believe anyone has left.
“I would be willing to bet, unless they try to arrest us, people are not going to move,” he said.
Hill said that the property owner of the private land would be responsible for enforcing the eviction on his land and the city will enforce it on theirs.
Erik explained that he was shocked when he first heard of the eviction notice, saying that the residents of the encampment have largely kept to themselves.
“I don’t really think we are bothering anyone,” he said. “We try to keep it clean. We are different to society, but we are still human.”
In May, Harrisburg received $2.3 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to deploy to area social service groups to assist people experiencing homelessness.
“The service providers have the resources,” Maisel said. “We rely so much on the county and local nonprofits because this is their specialty.”
While Erik said he may move in with his girlfriend, Y said she didn’t know where she was going to go.
The area under the Mulberry Street Bridge has been fenced off since the encampment eviction. While Harrisburg originally put up the fences in order to clean the area and to conduct rat extermination, Maisel said that PennDOT has since taken over the fence rental costs and is responsible for not allowing people to return.
The large encampment near the PennDOT building in South Harrisburg is another option for those who need to move, but Y isn’t interested in moving into a new, crowded community.
She acknowledged the issue with drug use and occasional overdoses that occur at the encampment, but, like Erik, said that people keep their living spaces clean and keep to themselves.
“I guess they got tired of it and want us all to leave,” she said. “People want it to be homeless-free and don’t want to see us here.”
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