Tent City, a roadside campground that became a controversial home to a stream of jobless workers and assorted drifters, was abandoned by all but a few residents today after the Harris County fire marshal threatened to close it down because of fire code violations.
Fire Marshal J.J. Pruitt gave Tent City residents 48 hours to clean up their makeshift shelters and campsites.
A man burned to death Tuesday night when his tent caught fire.
Pruitt's order was scheduled to take effect at noon today. Before reporters and local officials from various agencies arrived this morning, the camp had taken on the appearance of a ghost town. By noon, only two residents were still in the the camp, near the San Jacinto River about 20 miles east of Houston.
But Pruitt delayed the official closing of Tent City after a state district judge, responding to a lawsuit filed in behalf of some of Tent City's residents, set a hearing for Monday to consider blocking the fire marshal.
Considerable confusion surrounded the order, but as a practical matter the delay did little to stop the demise of a community that had attracted attention as a symbol--rightly or wrongly--of the recession in America, and local criticism as a haven for people more interested in mooching off society than in seeking work.
It was not immediately clear where the Tent City residents went. Shelter was found for families with children, according to Bill Collins, the last in a string of spokesmen for the community.
Other residents were said to have moved to another state rest area nearby. Several residents said they had found a temporary place to park their vehicles. Collins said he and his wife had moved in with a daughter, while Mike Kovalcik, one of the two residents remaining after the noon deadline, said he had accepted an offer from a Houston woman for shelter and employment.
The sudden decision to try to shut down Tent City, which sprang up last year when the recession hit Texas, came after several months of controversy over health and safety conditions at the camp and reports of drinking, drugs, violence and spurned job offers.
Residents of Tent City said they believed state and local officials were looking for an excuse to shut down the camp. "The people are gone," Collins said. "They were forced out. That's your great state of Texas and the great city of Houston."
Pruitt denied that local authorities were attempting to force anyone out. "We're doing our jobs," he told reporters. "We're trying to prevent fires."