Railroad project will evict squatters from The Point
The scrap of land at the confluence of the Gunnison and Colorado rivers looks like a 19th century homestead accentuated with a few modern amenities.
The people who live here — those who have nowhere else to go or, in fact, prefer to call it home — have fashioned crude structures out of wood pallets, tar paper and plastic tarps. They’ve tied string between trees from which to hang blankets and clothes and taped signs to doors advising visitors not to disturb occupants, because they sleep during the day. A few boast generators and electrical appliances. Some keep dogs.
To get here, they must scamper across a railroad bridge with no escape route, hoping they aren’t chased or met head-on by a train, or scramble down a steep hillside that drops them right next to the tracks.
Soon, though, the homeless and transients who to this point have met little or no resistance for years to their illegally squatting on this half-acre sandbar known as The Point will be evicted permanently.
Union Pacific Railroad is finalizing construction plans that ultimately will cut off pedestrian access to the area, which is west of the Fifth Street bridge. Company spokesman Mark Davis said the exact work to be done and cost are yet to be determined, but railroad officials intend to stabilize the riverbank along the tracks with a series of sizable boulders and erect a large fence around the tracks in the area of The Point.
“From a safety standpoint, it’s something we all feel they put themselves in danger each time they go out on that bridge or try to go to their shelters,” Davis said.
While the project effectively eliminates a longtime homeless camp, law-enforcement officials and social workers acknowledge it may simply push those unable or uninterested in finding permanent housing to other stretches of the river. Homeless advocates, however, are working one-on-one with the homeless people to get them out of the elements and into temporary or permanent housing. Their firm goal is to end homeless encampments within a year.
“We don’t want to be a community that has 60, 70, 80 people along the riverbanks,” said Mollie Woodard, operations manager at Homeward Bound of the Grand Valley and chairwoman of the Grand Valley Coalition for the Homeless, which recently announced a 10-year plan to abolish homelessness in the valley.
Although camps are spread along the Colorado River in and near downtown Grand Junction, the camp at The Point historically has been the largest one. The population can vary, swelling to 50 during the warmest months of the year and shrinking to a dozen or so hard-core individuals once freezing temperatures settle in.
Since Union Pacific informed local agencies of its intentions to fence off its tracks near The Point a few months ago, organizations including Homeward Bound, the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department and Grand Valley Catholic Outreach have been advising occupants of The Point that they’ll need to move. Those efforts, coupled with the winter season, have succeeded in relocating nearly everyone. As of last week, Woodard said she was aware of only two people still camping at The Point.
The key to convincing people to relocate off the river — many are not only chronically homeless but also are battling drug addiction and mental illness — often is giving them individual attention, Woodard said.
“Sometimes it’s just meeting people where they’re at, especially with veterans,” she said, “They don’t feel like they have a lot of options. They’re used to dealing with a bigger, larger organization.”
One such person, according to Woodard, was Jim, a veteran in frail health who was infested with bed bugs and had lived on The Point for two years. She met him in December at the Catholic Outreach Soup Kitchen and asked him, point-blank, what he wanted out of his life and how she could help him. He talked about how cold he was and how he treasured his dog, who had been by his side for nine years.
The Veterans Affairs Medical Center offered him showers and connected him with the financial assistance for which he was eligible. He stayed at the Homeward Bound homeless shelter for a few weeks. He’s now in housing through Catholic Outreach’s St. Martin’s Place.
There are just under 1,000 homeless people in the valley, according to the last point-in-time count the homeless coalition conducted in January 2011. Ninety-four percent identified themselves as being residents of the county for at least three years, a fact that tells Woodard officials aren’t dealing with an influx of outsiders but local citizens unable or unwilling to find housing.
When the homeless coalition accounts for local homeless numbers next month, it will shift its focus, conducting what’s known as a vulnerability index count that assesses an individual’s health status and uses risk factors and length of homelessness to identify and rank the most vulnerable.
In the meantime, Woodard will continue to work with the final holdouts at The Point.
“The folks who are down there now, they’re going to take a unique approach,” she said. “I don’t have a quick solution. Everybody who was willing has come out of there. I’m very cautious with anybody who is still down there.”