July 11, 2007
Charlottesville police call them "railroad people", and one of the places they hang out is on the downtown mall. Now many business owners said they've worn out their welcome, but there isn't much police can do.
“This is God's country,” said J.D. Martin, one of the railroad people.
In a sense, he's right. No one owns the downtown mall. It’s public domain, meaning even if business owners want him or his friends to leave, if they are not causing a problem, there is nothing police can do. It puts officers in a tough spot.
“There are people who say we want anyone and everyone here, and for the most part, that's good, but then it draws people like this also,” Lt. Gary Pleasants, Charlottesville Police Department.
Daniel McKean said his business at Millers has suffered since the railroad people have been hanging out on the downtown mall.
“I've had problems where they've been sitting on the awning. They've been finding it as a gathering place for themselves. They were paying customers, but they were becoming belligerent; they were scaring away other guests,” said McKean, Millers' managing partner.
It got so bad that he asked the Charlottesville Police for help.
“We've arrested several of them several times for drunk in public and other smaller offenses, but they do cause trouble,” said Pleasants.
Even the prospect of arrest doesn't deter some of these unwanted visitors.
“Today I’ve drunken three forties and a half gallon of vodka and this is my third one right here,” said Martin.
It's this behavior McKean said bothers him most.
“The biggest problems were language, overdrinking, running out of money, sitting outside along the other areas and other merchants in the area and panhandling,” said McKean.
Panhandling is how these people survive. They travel for free, hopping on trains and riding from city to city. When they find an ideal place, they jump off.
“Hopping trains is fun. It's illegal, I know, but it's a beautiful scenery,” said traveler Anthony Cano.
They say they only stick around one place for about a month, and then they catch a train out of town. Police and business owners say they're looking forward to that day.
“We worked with the Charlottesville Police Department to try to have them go someplace else,” said McKean.
Until they decide to move on, police said there simply isn't much else they can do.
This isn't the first time they've stopped in Charlottesville and stayed a while. This time two summers ago, they were here as well.