New Castle News

November 24, 2012

Warmth, food a challenge for Tent City dwellers

Debbie Wachter
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — A tender, pink scar mars the left cheek of Dominick Sansone after a recent knife slashing.

His beard stubble and slicked-back hair frame a gaunt and weathered face, and his apparent soft-spoken nature defies the police record he has acquired over several years from nonviolent or alcohol-related behavior.

A Lockley school T-shirt, partly visible under his open blue flannel shirt, shows off his New Castle roots.

He slouches in a director’s-style chair in the woods, describing his life without a roof over his head and how — at age 55 — he hopes to live to see 65.

With torrential rains, wind and frigid temperatures disrupting his nighttime slumber, he is forced, reluctantly, to find shelter at times with relatives.

His lifestyle doesn’t fit theirs, he says.

He recounts his recent attack by an “outsider” of Tent City, who delivered the scar. The fray ended with Sansone’s face cut dangerously close to his jugular vein.

It was all over two sawbucks.

“He owed me $20. I asked him for it, and he threw the knife open and cut me across here,” Sansone said, pointing to the left side of his face, now healed together by 13 stitches. “Then he said, ‘I should finish it.’”

Bleeding profusely, Sansone made his way to a clearing and an acquaintance came along and called an ambulance.



LIFE IN THE WOODS

In another era, they might have been called hobos.

Sansone is one of about a dozen men and women who inhabitant Tent City, a homeless encampment in the woods along the Neshannock Creek off the Columbus Innerbelt on land owned by the Ellwood Industrial Group.

Some are locals who are down on their luck.

Others are jobless military veterans waiting while they try to reap some government benefits or jobs for their survival.

Still others are transients from out of town.

They walk through the downtown during the day, stopping at shelters for free meals and using restaurant restrooms. Sometimes they go fishing in the creek.

At night, they go back into the woods, sit around campfires, eat food out of easy-to-open cans, smoke hand-rolled cigarettes and drink beer they afford by collecting and recycling cans.

Then, they climb into their pup tents outfitted with mattresses and blankets, pillows and tarpaulins that they’ve acquired through donations from a local drop-in center and a nearby furniture store.

These accommodations are a far cry from the comforts of home, but they get used to it.

When the elements become too harsh, some find their way into abandoned houses for shelter.

Some of them die.

A “no trespassing” sign hangs on a metal gate at the entrance of the settlement, and four or five blue tents with tattered edges are pitched in a clearing off a dirt trail a few hundred feet into the woods.

Tarpaulins are propped up over the tents for extra protection.

American flags and a framed mirror reminiscent of the Addams Family hang along the fence at their campsite, decor they have acquired to spruce up their living quarters. A skillet and an ice chest are suspended there too.

Dozens of beer and pop cans litter the ground.

A pile of paper trash is intermingled with twigs and a few logs and contained within a circle of rocks, soon to be the fuel for a fire that will keep them warm later that evening.

This group of souls are each other’s family by choice, after living in houses with real family or friends has failed them.



LIVING BY RULES

Sansone has lived at Tent City off and on for two years. He was recently arrested for trespassing at the Cascade Galleria. The downtown mall has a list of people who don’t belong there, and it includes Tent City dwellers.

New Castle Police Chief Bobby Salem sends his officers to patrol Tent City regularly, but typically the cops leave the squatters alone there if they’re not bothering anyone.

If the police would chase them out, Salem explained, they would disperse throughout the city, sleeping in stairwells, in the city parking garage or on building steps.

“There, they are isolated and not on our streets downtown.”

When there’s trouble in the woods, it’s typically caused by other people who go there to party, he is told.

Denson Quinn, 48, has been at Tent City for about eight months.

“A lot of times, people back here get blamed for things, but it’s people who got homes who come back here and come from a bar,” the transient said.

He camps with Sansone and Andrew Rogenski, 47, who ended up there from Youngstown.

The women’s tents are pitched in a different area of the grounds.

Quinn tried staying at the City Rescue Mission and at a Human Services Center house, but it didn’t work out.

“It’s hard to follow the rules and be in at a certain time,” he said. “It just got where I couldn’t handle it anymore.”

He’s been on the move for most of his adult life. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2006, he moved from city to city before ending up in New Castle two years ago.

“I went to the bus stop and got me the next bus.”

His housing options quickly diminished.

“They won’t rent me an apartment anywhere, because you have to sign a two-year lease,” he said.

Most landlords also want a security deposit and the first month’s rent, an amount a homeless person cannot afford.

Quinn has come to rely on local agencies and shelters as his lifeline for food and basic amenities — Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, the City Rescue Mission and Patches Place, a mental health support agency.

A youth minister from Church of Genesis in Mahoningtown routinely visits to take the campers to church. He also does their laundry and takes them bottled water.

Other people leave food at the entrance, but Patches Place representatives said they prefer all donations go through them, for safety reasons.

“Since when did Tent City become a proper noun?” asked Sandra Hause, executive director of Patches Place.

An independent program through the agency helps homeless people acquire Social Security and other compensation and meet other needs to try to find them permanent shelter.

Patches Place, together with Catholic Charities, reaches out to Tent City residents by giving them tents, blankets, clothing, canned food and even fishing gear, and allowing them to shower, do laundry and have a hot breakfast at its North Mill Street drop-in center.

Quinn, in turn, volunteers at the Mill Street center in the mornings and afternoons, helping to cook, clean and do odd jobs.

“I help them because they help me,” he said.



CHOICES HAVE RULES

The homeless have choices.

There are shelters in town, and there is the City Rescue Mission, which houses Christian men. Women have other shelters available.

But most of those places have house rules and at Tent City, there are none.

For example, the Rescue Mission has curfews and works to instill religious beliefs the men don’t always want to obey, and no alcohol is allowed.

The alternative is to suffer the most dire weather conditions.

Three homeless people succumbed last year, and most who survive life in the woods have suffered life-threatening bouts of pneumonia, according to Angela Hagberg of Patches Place.

“We’ve had people die on the streets or lose toes or their feet because of frostbite or exposure,” Hause said.

One man fell asleep at a bus stop and died. Another developed a blood clot because he lost his toes.

“If it wasn’t for Patches Place and Catholic Charities, I think a lot of people would be in a world of trouble,” Quinn said.

He pulls back the flap of a tent in the woods to show an accumulation of canned goods, tools, clothes and other items he and his neighbors have amassed through donations from a generous community.

“Whatever we have, we use,” he said.

Rogenski sits in a folding chair rolling cigarettes and explains he is leaving Tent City and moving into an apartment on the city’s East Side. He was lucky to find a month-to-month lease and rent at $450 plus utilities.

He receives disability pay and “it pretty much takes all of the check money I have to make a move.”

He fell from a ladder in 1996 and broke his back. He has two plates in his spine and virtually no ribs remaining on his left side. He wears a knee brace and walks with a cane.

He keeps his shaved head warm with a ballcap over a do-rag.

This wasn’t Rogenski’s first stint at Tent City. He lived there two years ago, even during the winter when it was nearly impossible to stay warm.

He shrugs. “We sit by the fire and try to keep it going at night, but there isn’t much wood to burn.”