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Tent City near Sam's Club relocated


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The tent city, comprised mostly of out-of-state workers in town to assist with Hurricane Michael cleanup, was relocated to the church a few lots down after several incidents of rowdy behavior and a trespassing notice from the landowner.


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PANAMA CITY — As one tent city was shut down for trespassing, workers living there — who primarily have come from out-of-town for construction and clean up jobs — have found refuge in a church parking lot.

Over 75 people relocated Sunday from a vacant lot near Sam’s Club to the parking lot of the Forest Park United Methodist church just a few lots away, creating a small community of Coleman tents and trailers within hours.

“This is the camp for displaced workers,” said Ken Martinez, who had taken over as the group’s leader, manning a sign-in sheet, setting the rules at an informal meeting, and working on establishing regular feeding by the Salvation Army. “You got to work to stay here.”

In the aftermath of Michael, hundreds of workers have come to Bay County from all over the Southeast and beyond to “help and make some money,” by doing jobs such as tree removal work, roofing, construction, picking up power lines and collecting scrap metal. Many of the workers, who are mostly self-employed or independent contractors, follow disasters, having come directly Hurricane Florence clean-up efforts in North Carolina.

“I was making $4,000 a day in North Carolina, but I came here to help,” said Darrell “Cowboy” Maggard, who works in tree removal. “The locals don’t want us here because they want all the money, but they can’t take care of all this. ... We are just trying to make a living.”

Coming here though, Maggard said he ran into a slate of problems. The first week here, he said, he worked on the promise of making $500, only to be paid $85 because the employer was waiting on payment from the job. He said he still hasn’t seen the full amount promised. He also couldn’t find a hotel room he could afford.

Without a lot of options, he ended up staying in the lot by Sam’s Club, along with other workers who also talked about hardships finding a hotel room or problems with employers.


“We picked here because it was a big open lot,” said Corey Aleksines, adding the hotels were too expensive. “We were some of the first one’s here.”

Nobody had asked for permission to be there though, according to Police Chief Scott Ervin, and the property owners were unhappy with the arrangement and ordered no trespassing signs be put up. Starting today, police will be trespassing people from the site.

While workers were reluctant to pack up, many said they understood, recalling an incident of some people drinking too much and trying to go mudding in a retention pond and then getting into a fight.

“People were wanting to be stupid,” David Hickman, who had come from Denver to work, said.

Hickman and Aleksines were packing up Sunday to go back to Aleksines home in Mississippi, figuring between a damaging car wreck and the campsite being shut down their time in Panama City had come to an end. But the majority of workers seemed to be moving down the road to the church, where Maggard said the pastor had given him permission to set up the camp.

“I got down on my knees, closed my eyes, and said thank you Lord (after he said yes),” Maggard said, noting he didn’t know where else he would have gone. “I’m just trying to make a living supporting my family.”

A lot of other people found themselves in Maggard’s position. By 3 p.m, Martinez had signed 75 people in with that number steadily growing.

But this camp, he said, is going to be different. There will be rules.

“You have to be working to stay here,” Martinez said. “No drugs. No fighting, and you have to keep it clean.”

If people didn’t follow the rules, Martinez said law enforcement would be called.

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