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Storm victims resist moving into tent cities


HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- They would rather be homeless than refugees in their own land.

One day after U.S. soldiers opened the massive tent city in Harris Field, most of the people of Homestead and Florida City say they will not trade their decimated homes for a cot under canvas.

Instead, they sneak back into homes condemned by inspectors. They cram into one-bedroom apartments with 20 other storm victims. They take to squatting in abandoned houses around the neighborhood. They even pitch their own tents, preferring a flimsy shelter to one far from home.

To them, tent cities are a last resort -- a solution for the truly destitute and desperate. Tent cities are for Haitians in Guantanamo Bay, Kurds in Iraq, not for Americans.

"They think of tent cities as concentration camps," said Tony Vazquez, who lives in Florida City.

But as bulldozers plow down crippled buildings and rains further strain already weakened roofs, southern Dade County residents may have little choice. Homestead's tent city housed 127 people by 5 p.m. yesterday.

"Eventually they will reach a point of frustration living in that kind of environment, the mosquitoes, the rain, the lack of potable water," U.S. Sen. Connie Mack said.

Many of the borderline homeless in southern Dade have worked a lifetime for their television sets, microwave ovens and living room suites. They say they are not about to let thieves finish off what Andrew didn't. They are staying put.

Ismal Castro would rather lose sleep than the little he has salvaged from the storm. Every 20 minutes, he wakes up, afraid the sagging ceiling will tumble down on his wife and daughter.

But he won't leave. He won't abandon his furniture.

"If I had a place I would move," he said. "But I'm going to stay here because I don't want to lose what I have. I worked hard for that."

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