Squatters in bank's woods hard to evict

Staff WriterNovember 23, 2007 

— Rebecca Vazquez said the tree that flattened her kitchen was a not-so-subtle eviction notice.

Vazquez, 47, has lived for more than a year in a well-established homeless camp in South Raleigh in a 25-acre stand of trees owned by First Citizens Bank.

At the end of October, the bank hired a forestry contractor to thin out the woods across the street from the bank's South Raleigh data center, representatives of the bank said. The contractor cut two trails into the woods that stopped right at two of the four camps on the land. Then the contractor cut down trees that fell on the camp, tearing the tarp off Vazquez's kitchen and knocking down the wall of an improvised shack where her camp-mate lived.

"It's not construction, it's destruction," Vazquez said.

A spokeswoman for First Citizens Bank acknowledged that the bank wanted the homeless camps gone but said the contractors were not targeting the camps.

"We have to get equipment into that property," Barbara Thompson said.

For homeless settlements, the camps were on the high end. Vazquez, at first glance, defies homeless stereotypes.

She's neatly dressed and well groomed. Her campsite, which she shares with another camper, is neat and clean with amenities that include a drip shower and limited electricity from car batteries.

Some of the other structures in the camp include small cabins built of scrap wood. Neighboring campsites are neat and well maintained with little clutter.

They're established, comfortable and clean.

Vazquez said most of the residents aren't heavy drinkers and keep as much as they can to themselves.

Even with the low profile, First Citizens wants them gone.

Thompson said First Citizens had tried to evict the squatters with no luck.

Nearby businesses have complained, one person was stabbed in the camp and there has been at least one fire.

The bank has posted no trespassing signs in an effort to vacate the property.

"It's a safety issue," Thompson said. "It's something we're very concerned about."

Vazquez thinks the bank is being aggressive in its efforts to evict the squatters.

"Those trails come straight to the camps and stop," she said.

Since 2004, Raleigh police have had an established procedure to remove homeless encampments. Owners usually ask police in writing to help them evict residents of the camps. Police coordinate with counselors and give agreeable homeless people a day or two to pack up. The rowdy ones may get arrested.

The police haven't been to this camp, according to Alice McGee of Church of the Woods, a homeless advocacy group. McGee is looking for a place for Vazquez and the other camp residents to stay.

As of Tuesday, Vazquez had not heard from the bank or the police.

McGee said there are about 120 encampments in Wake County with residents trespassing on private land. When the property owners discover them, McGee coordinates with police and other services to find new homes for the evicted.

As the county is developed, she said, it's harder to find places where people can set up camps.

More than 3,000 people are thought to be homeless in Wake County, though as many as five times that number are considered at risk -- doubled up with family or sleeping on the couches of friends.

Though Wake County's homeless population is smaller than in 2001 and 2002, county planners have identified homelessness as a serious problem. In 2005, Raleigh officials began a 10-year effort to "effectively end homelessness" by attacking such problems as substance abuse, mental illness and domestic violence.

McGee has tried, with little success, to broker a deal with First Citizens on a schedule for vacating the property.

For Vazquez, it might not be a problem much longer. Since the trails were cut, she has landed a job; she hopes to find her own place by the end of next month.

"She might get a home for Christmas," McGee said.

sam.lagrone@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-4951

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