Campers at 5 W. Las Vegas Ave. got a rude awakening Oct. 12 as word of eviction quickly circulated around the tent village near Springs Rescue Mission. First from security guards then more emphatically from police, the message was unequivocal: Everyone had to pack up and leave by 3 p.m.
Anguish and frustration mingled with the harsh chill of the season's first truly wintry morning. As the campers reluctantly departed, some pushing carts or bikes, there was disagreement about whether to find a new spot together or separately, call motels or churches, find food or warmer clothes.
"Where am I supposed to go now?" asked a 20-year-old who goes by Miss America, saying she's a survivor of human trafficking. "When you're a girl, everyone goes after you," she said while hurriedly packing up her tent. "But they," she added, gesturing to male neighbors, "they stop these creepy guys from raping me at night."
The Last Sanctuary — as the camp was called — began with a longer life expectancy. People set up last month in SRM's parking lot to avoid trouble on trails, under bridges and in open spaces where camping is illegal. Initially, the Mission planned to let them stay until Nov. 10, when 185 new shelter beds are slated to open.
Campers organized to keep the place tidy, orderly and limited in size, but self-governance could only go so far. More people moved in, trash accumulated and interpersonal tensions rose.
On Oct. 11, the city issued a notice giving SRM 48 hours to provide a "plan of action" for disbanding the camp. The next morning, SRM gave campers eight hours to leave.
At a tense news conference, SRM CEO Larry Yonkers emphasized his nonprofit is "working as hard as we can" to increase capacity, but given liability issues, "I felt we had to take action today and move as quickly as we could to minimize risk."
As for what line got crossed, neighborhood services manager Mitch Hammes explained, "It's difficult in a code enforcement situation to say you can have 12 tents, not 15, or three bags of trash, not four [...] but we saw a proliferation of conditions and that's the point we said we have to put a stop to this."
City Community Development manager Aimee Cox conceded "it's very likely these people will be dispersed back into camp settings on public rights of way." About the shortage of emergency shelter space, even with SRM's forthcoming additions, Cox said, "There simply is not the capacity in our community right now for somebody to manage another facility. This isn't just about a building [...] we need to find long-term solutions so we're not in crisis mode every winter."
Advocates are trying to find shelter and resources for displaced people, but worry that without a central locus they'll be harder to reach.
"It's so sick," one camper, Raven, said about losing what she helped to organize. "We try to do the right thing, to help ourselves and each other, and this is what we get."