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Waterford tries to convince last resident of homeless encampment to move out

Waterford — A dozen residents of a homeless camp on the Waterford and New London town line received notice a few months back — it was time to move on.

Waterford police Lt. Marc Balestracci said the amount of trash in the woods was growing to a point it was a public health concern. Complaints from neighbors were mounting and 911 calls from people in the encampment, including an assault with a knife over the summer, were cause for safety concerns.

“During the times officers responded to calls for service, we realized just how hazardous it was. It had gotten pretty bad,” Balestracci said.

The result, he said, was a concerted effort to clean up the site and help the people living there find housing before extreme weather set in.

That effort was largely successful, Balestracci said, with all but one of the residents now temporarily housed before the Dec. 10 deadline, after which time a contractor is expected to remove the remnants of the encampment.

The camp, known by residents as Tent City II, is located in the woods behind Charter Oak Federal Credit Union off Boston Post Road, on land police say is owned by the town of Waterford.

Instead of “steamrolling” through the camp and dismantling the makeshift collection of tents, tarps and one wooden structure, Balestracci said, police and homeless advocates took a compassionate approach, making frequent visits, forming relationships with residents and gathering together a working group of a dozen different agencies focused on helping.

Adam, the 27-year-old who remains on site, argues that he and others simply want to be left alone, especially during a pandemic when the outdoors seems a safer alternative to sleeping in a crowded shelter or the doorways of businesses. Adam, who declined to provide his full name, also claims there remain others who call the camp home.

On Monday, Adam gave a short tour of the camp, located in wooded area a short walk from the bank parking lot. It contains his winterized plywood shelter that he says is sufficient for him to tough out the cold months.

Despite the warning that he is trespassing, Adam intends to stay and maintain the camp for what he believes is an inevitable tide of newly homeless when an eviction moratorium in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic comes to an end. Two women showed up during Adam’s tour, who housing advocates say now have a place to stay.

The camp has been in existence for several years and grew two years ago when a similar camp off State Pier Road in New London, “Tent City I,” was dismantled by police following a reported sexual assault.

Charter Oak, a few years back, even placed a portable toilet to the rear of the parking lot in hopes of dissuading people from coming inside to use the bank bathroom. More recently, the town dropped off a refuse container.

Adam, also known as “Doc,” is a street medic and member of the New London Mutual Aid Collective, an activist group that has been collecting funds and building materials to replace tents with winterized structures.

The group staged a protest outside Waterford police headquarters over the weekend in an attempt to garner public support for what they consider an eviction action that jeopardizes lives.

The group regularly holds free food and clothing giveaways in New London and was behind the so-called Fort Trumbull Memorial Orchard, a campaign to plant fruit trees and other edibles on undeveloped city-owned property seized through eminent domain and at the center of the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Kelo v. City of New London case.

Group co-founder Hayward Gatch said police have thwarted their efforts to help provide building materials and construct small, safe wooden structures that can be insulated and heated. Pallets dropped off at the site were removed by the town. Police said the pallets were being used as a makeshift barrier.

Hayward and others argue the police narrative about the homeless encampment exaggerates the issues at the camp.

“A main thrust of their argument seems to center around offenses by a belligerent individual that no longer resides at the camp. This is similar to when a resident of (Tent City I) in New London was sexually assaulted by two out-of-towners and the response from the city was to destroy the encampment, depriving all the residents of their recently winterized homes,” Gatch said.

“To us it is completely nonsensical to further victimize them. It’s sort of like claiming the trash is the problem without acknowledging why its there,” he said.

Adam, who has been living there for about a year, said he has no plans to leave.

“The police are not actually interested in solving that problem,” Adam said. “I’m going to stay here and help maintain the space for people who are going to need it. I don’t respect the legitimacy of people who come back here with firearms and threats to throw people out on the streets or into overcrowded shelter systems. People are dying. People are in grave danger of health problems in the community. I’m not going to tolerate threats.”

“You don’t have to evict them in order to help them,” Gatch said. “You can help and also respect the autonomy of people in a time of need to live in a space they feel safe in.”

Gatch said he is researching legal recourse, such as an injunction, against the “eviction,” and also whether the area is actually town property. Police said research shows the property’s actual address is 33 R Strosberg Road and is town property.

Waterford town officials say they have gone to extraordinary lengths over the past several months to first notify the residents and later to find temporary housing and resources for nearly all of the dozen people who had called the woods home. They have offered Adam housing and funding resources to obtain a certified nursing assistant certificate or take an emergency medical technician course. He refused.

“He’s not being asked to go to the shelter or live on the streets. He’s being offered housing, a chance to pursue a career. And he chooses not to do that. Is the town of Waterford wrong to say ‘No, that’s not a choice on the menu’?” said Cathy Zall, director of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center.

“I feel the town has acted responsibly,” Zall said.

Members of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center joined with Waterford officials to work person-by-person to relocate the people living there.

Zall said she understands that, in certain circumstances, people have no other option but to set up homes in places where they are considered trespassers.

“But someone is providing you the options, that changes the whole equation. There are many places where police go in virtually with no notice and bulldoze encampments. That’s not what’s happening here,” she said.

In addition to New London’s homeless shelter, All Souls Universalist Congregation in New London has opened a warming center for the winter.

“It’s not a lot. It’s a mat on the floor but it's also meals and it’s socially distanced and its a place where anybody that needs it can have access to a warm place to stay,” Zall said. “I feel like we’re trying to do what I think most people would think is reasonable.”

Balestracci said he intends to talk to Adam before Dec. 10 but First Selectman Robert Brule, in a Dec. 1 letter to police Chief Brett Mahoney, said if the “illegal occupation” continues after Dec. 10, Adam should be detained as a trespasser, his personal belongings removed and anything left behind considered abandoned.

There were about 3,000 homeless people in Connecticut, according to the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, and those in crisis are encouraged to call 211, the state’s information and crisis intervention service.

g.smith@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of Hayward Gatch's first name in a photo caption.

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