Dallas Farmers Market Is a Battleground in the War over How to Address the City's Homelessness Problem
Sam Patterson in Tent City, a homeless encampment below I-45
Tanya Ragan insists on meeting at night. “DPD shift change around 11 p.m.,” she explains in a text message. “It is a different world at sundown.”
It’s 10 p.m. when she pulls out of the parking lot of the Green Door, a pub in a building she owns by the Dallas Farmers Market. She’s driving a Nissan Xterra with a “Wrong Way” sticker on the back windshield, the “O” replaced with President Obama’s 2008 campaign logo, for this tour of downtown homelessness.
A commercial real estate developer is an odd tour guide for a trip among the city’s street people, but Ragan knows the subject well. Her efforts to transform the Dallas Farmers Market into a livable residential neighborhood has necessarily included reclaiming a large swath of territory historically controlled by the homeless. Because homelessness is a charged issue, and because Ragan has set about her task with the restraint of a terrier worrying a rat, she is the target of near constant vitriol as well as occasional acts of retribution.
Someone recently set fire to one of the buildings she owns in the neighborhood, which she doesn’t think was a random target. And not long ago, her maintenance guy called to report that the front of the building she offices in had been vandalized. “You think you got a graffiti problem? That’s the least of your problems,” he announced.
She’d been in the neighborhood long enough to see what he was getting at. “No, don’t tell me. Did somebody shit?” The maintenance guy laughed ruefully. “Shit?!? He smeared it all over the door!” The security guard at a nearby property identified the culprit as an aggressive West End panhandler she’s repeatedly confronted.
“These guys took a lot of risk along Canton,” she says as she drives, gesturing to the row of tidy brick townhouses that kicked off the modern era of Farmers Market residential development about six years ago. Back then, she says, the homes were selling for about $140 per square foot. The residence at the corner of Canton Street and Pearl Expressway recently went for $225 per square foot — just shy of half a million dollars. Two blocks away, a 300-unit luxury apartment complex just opened. Another is under construction just to the southeast. The Farmers Market itself, which the city privatized in 2013, is near the end of a $65 million redo, complete with still more residences. “You’re taking an area that had nothing and all of a sudden it’s going to represent a third of the downtown population,” Ragan boasts.
Ragan provided the neighborhood a social hub when she led efforts to rescue a 130-year-old building the city planned to raze to make way for an expansion of Cesar Chavez Boulevard. She moved the structure to Harwood Street and leased it to the Green Door in 2014. Soon after, Ragan was pleasantly shocked when she saw people — affluent Dallasites who could easily have covered the distance in their cars — walking to the pub from the townhouses a block away. “In the 10 years I’ve been here, I have never seen people walking down the sidewalk,” she says. In a very small way, it reminded her of New York City.
Even so, the Farmers Market, along with the rapidly developing Cedars neighborhood immediately to the south, remains the epicenter for Dallas’ homeless population and all the vagrancy and petty crime that accompany it. When she bought her first property in the neighborhood in 2007, Ragan expected that gentrification would naturally push those problems away, but thanks largely to the social service agencies that anchor the transient population to the area, rather than crowding out the problem, the rush of development has compounded it as affluent residents continue to pour into areas from which the homeless won’t budge.
“You’ve got a lot of people who have not only made downtown their home but have invested here, who’ve taken the risk to try to improve these neighborhoods and try to revitalize these neighborhoods, and tensions are running at an all-time high.”
Something, Ragan is convinced, has to give.
Farmers market resident Tanya Ragan spent years battling to reclaim the neighborhood from the homeless and social service agencies.
Dallas’ attitude toward the homeless is on a pendulum that swings between compassion and vexation. Every few years brings a crisis moment and a proposed fix that, when the cycle repeats itself, turns out not really to have fixed much of anything.
In the late 1980s, realizing that the thousands of homeless loitering at the library and on downtown streets might be doing so because they had nowhere else to go, city leaders opened the Day Resource Center.
A few years later, exasperated by the homeless’ continued presence, the City Council imposed a nighttime curfew at public parks and outlawed things like sleeping in public and rummaging through trash cans. These foreshadowed an infamous 1994 sweep in which the city cleared a massive encampment from beneath the underpass separating downtown from Deep Ellum. Ostensibly this was a public health measure, but it dovetailed suspiciously with the city’s preparation to be in the international spotlight as a World Cup host.
Homelessness again rose to the top of the policy agenda in the early 2000s as the city began working in earnest to revitalize its core. Mayor Laura Miller came into the office pledging to address the crisis, which she described as “the No. 1 obstacle to getting downtown revitalized.” Her crusade produced a slew of additional anti-homeless ordinances, including bans on shopping carts, unauthorized homeless feedings and panhandling, but it also resulted in $26.8 million in bond money for a state-of-the-art homeless treatment center, though most of this was allocated only after the need was underscored when two homeless men were run over while sleeping on the sidewalk outside the Day Resource Center in late 2004.
Ragan unwittingly stepped into the cycle in late 2007 when, a few months after Miller left office, she bought an old restaurant building near the Farmers Market.
Ragan had no particular connection to Dallas before she moved to the city in 2005. She grew up in Minnesota and built a commercial real estate career in New York City; Dallas had neither the small-town coziness of the former nor the cosmopolitan pull of the latter. It was, however, on the eastern edge of the Barnett Shale, which at the time was the largest natural gas play in the country. She spent two weeks scoping out prospects and found them sufficiently favorable that she broke up with her boyfriend, moved to Texas and started her own commercial real estate business, Wildcat Management.
Initially she focused almost exclusively on Tarrant County, which was at the heart of the drilling boom. “Some of these people were going from living in mobile homes to getting huge checks in the mail,” Ragan recalls. “They wanted to leave.” Ragan was there to help out, buying up their property with an eye toward development. She bought and managed existing buildings as well and was inquiring about a Fort Worth property when the owner mentioned a building he owned — the old restaurant building — in the southeastern corner of downtown Dallas. Ragan sensed that the Farmers Market area was about to experience its own boom, so she bought it.
For six months, the Farmers Market seemed no more challenging than Cedar Hill or Fort Worth, where she also owned buildings. Then, in May 2008, the city opened The Bridge.
The Bridge was designed as a one-stop shop for homeless services. In addition to meals, bathrooms and emergency shelter — the traditional “hot and a cot” model of homeless outreach — it would house medical and mental-health clinics and pair clients with case managers who would walk them through the process of finding jobs and housing, obtaining social services and otherwise help them prepare to reenter the ranks of the housed.
Importantly, The Bridge would be a “low-barrier” shelter, open to essentially anyone so long as they could prove that they were homeless. It wouldn’t matter if they were sex offenders, drug addicts or convicted felons, nor would it matter if they participated in any of The Bridge’s services. Strict entry requirements would only push those people into the streets. On the eve of The Bridge’s opening, Mayor Mike Rawlings, at the time the city’s homeless czar, crowed to a reporter that “there’s not going to be any reason for people to be on the street anymore.”
Rawlings was wildly mistaken. The Bridge was immediately overrun, with demand for services far outstripping expectations. The facility was designed to sleep 300, but the nightly headcount quickly shot to more than twice that, leaving the central courtyard littered with sleeping bodies. To maintain order, The Bridge tightened security and capped overnight shelter space at 249 beds. In eight years, there hasn’t been a single vacancy.
“When The Bridge opened it brought so many people so quickly, it just overwhelmed the area,” Ragan says. Suddenly, her building turned into a maintenance nightmare. Thieves dug up her shrubbery and stole the ornamental bricks from her flower beds. Graffiti appeared on the walls. The sidewalks became receptacles for human waste. “I went from having a building that had landscaping, had plants, was occupied, to, ‘What the hell just happened?!?’”
Her neighbors had similar experiences. Mark Ruibal, whose family plant nursery launched out of a Farmers Market stall three decades ago, accepts the homeless as part of the neighborhood. At any given time he employs one or two of them, always with the full expectation that one day they’ll grow tired of work and disappear, stealing a couple of plants in the process. He thought The Bridge sounded wonderful, a place that would ease the burden on the neighborhood by giving the homeless a place to sleep and hang out while also taking a stab at helping with the problems that caused them to lose their homes in the first place.
He was quickly disillusioned. The Bridge became a magnet. It drew in plenty of sympathetic characters,
people who were down on their luck, but along with them came others who weren’t interested in help. The population was a mix of hard-luck cases looking for assistance, chronically homeless individuals looking to escape from the elements and an array of pushers, pimps and predators who fed off vulnerable populations. Some of that was probably inevitable, but it seemed to Ruibal that The Bridge management didn’t care that a significant portion of its would-be guests were content to loiter just outside its entrance.
“It just kind of turned into a big fiasco,” Ruibal says. “There was a disconnect between, these homeless people are right in front of your place — your place is meant to be their refuge or their help or however you want to say it. In the meantime, they’re standing right outside doing drug deals and prostituting a stone’s throw from you, and all you can say is, ‘Well, that’s not our property’?”
The Bridge CEO Jay Dunn says neighbors’ complaints are overblown. “I hate to use the world ‘bubble,’ but it’s a little bit of a bubble,” he says. His go-to stat is a 47 percent drop in serious crime in the neighborhood since The Bridge opened, which outpaced the citywide reduction of about 37 percent over the same timeframe. That figure excludes the lower-level offenses neighbors tend to complain about the most, like burglary, trespassing and public urination, but Dunn says those have dried up as well. “Before we had this resource, it was normative, and I don’t see it now.”
Ragan was new to the neighborhood when The Bridge opened in 2008, but she wasn’t shy. She began dropping in on other taxpaying property owners — mostly produce houses that had been around for generations — and asking whether they, too, had noticed a spike in homeless issues. They weren’t sure at first what to make of Ragan, but she won them over. “This is what I had going for me,” she says as she steers the Xterra through dark downtown back streets. “I was young, I was female, I’m friendly, I’m down to earth.”
She was also persistent. “Her company’s called Wildcat Management,” Ruibal says. “That’s a pretty good description.”
Ragan marshaled her neighbors into a crime watch, encouraging them to keep an eye on the streets and dial 911 if they saw anyone breaking the law. “If you see drugs, if you see criminal behavior, if you see criminal trespassing, if you see [anything], call call call call call. We were religious about it.”
Within a few weeks, the neighbors could claim some minor successes. Foot traffic shifted away from the new homes and old businesses, and the neighborhood reclaimed street corners previously occupied by vagrants. The improvements, though, were largely superficial. The homeless population remained anchored in the southeast corner of downtown.
The crime watch evolved into the Farmers Market Stakeholders Association, whose overriding goal was to force the rest of the city to treat the area as a functioning neighborhood rather than the de facto homeless dumping ground.
The process was slower and more involved than habitually dialing 911, but over the next several years the group notched several key victories. The neighborhood successfully beat back several attempts to build permanent supportive housing (essentially homeless apartment complexes), once traveling in a caravan to Austin in matching red T-shirts to lobby the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs to reject a proposal that had won the endorsement of the Dallas City Council. They weren’t against the concept, just the location. That’s the standard NIMBY line, but in their case self-interest was supplemented by legitimate questions about whether stuffing so many homeless services into a single neighborhood was sound policy.
They were also instrumental in privatizing the Farmers Market, which was foundering under inept city management. Neighbors organized pop-up markets to demonstrate the potential of a competently run market and sat on the committee that drafted a request for proposals. In 2013, a group of private investors took control of the market.
In 2014, following years of pressure from neighbors, The Bridge moved its entrance from the eastern border, where it funneled guests and hangers-on directly into the market and surrounding neighborhood, to the southwest corner, which was pressed up against Interstate 30. “The market’s developed a ton since we opened,” Dunn explains. “We want to encourage that, right? Or try to help?”
Chief operating officer Sam Merten is more expansive. “How long has the city wanted to get a private partner to develop the Farmers Market, and how many times have they been laughed out of the room? All of a sudden we come on board and change the dynamics and all of a sudden you’ve got half-a-million-dollar condos coming up all over the place, you’ve got the Farmers Market with a $65 million investment, I mean the whole area’s just getting completely transformed.”
Ragan bristles angrily at the notion that The Bridge has been anything but a curse on the neighborhood. “That is a flat-out lie. We have revitalized in spite of The Bridge. If The Bridge wasn’t there, it would have already happened, and it would have happened way faster.”
The Bridge CEO Jay Dunn says the best way to check the growth of homelessness is to invest in affordable housing and legislate a living wage.
On a crisp but sunny afternoon just before New Year’s, Sam Patterson holds court on St. Paul Street, just south of downtown. His chair juts into the sidewalk, causing the steady flow of foot traffic to eddy around him as it circulates between The Bridge, visible just across I-30, and homeless hotspots deeper in the Cedars: Cornerstone Baptist Church, the sprawling encampment under I-45 known as Tent City, the bodega just down the hill that everyone calls Reuben’s even though that name is nowhere to be found on signage dominated by a crude, hand-drawn depiction of a bag of ice and a dubious claim of being “your everything store.”
Every few minutes Patterson calls out a greeting, and one of the passersby pauses to exchange pleasantries. Someone brings him a Styrofoam take-out container with lunch. Someone else passes him a bottled water. A man in a full cowboy getup announces a pending move to Washington, D.C., where he’s convinced the prospects for the homeless are brighter. Patterson flashes a toothless grin — half his teeth were knocked out in a 1986 trucking accident, he says, the other half a few years later in a run-in with Little Rock police — and wishes the man well.
Patterson is 60 years old with roughly trimmed facial hair that runs across his upper lip and dangles from either side of his chin in triangular tufts of gray. He came to Dallas via Greyhound a couple of years ago to stay with his sister, who agreed to take him in following his release from the Arkansas prison where he’d spent the previous decade. He became homeless on September 12, 2014, the date his sister dropped him off at The Bridge after her boyfriend grew tired of the living arrangement.
Patterson spent close to a year at Union Gospel Mission, a large shelter near Parkland Hospital, but hasn’t been back since staff accused him of selling cigarettes to other guests. He still seethes at the injustice — “All I was doing was trying to light a cigarette!” — and has vowed not to return. “They barred me for 30 days, I been gone for 150,” he says defiantly.
Since leaving the mission, Patterson has made his home in a small encampment just below his perch on St. Paul: a half-dozen tents sandwiched between the I-30 service road and Dallas Heritage Village. It’s about as close to The Bridge as it can get without being north of I-30, offering ready access to shelter-provided breakfast and lunch, not to mention the carloads of good Samaritans who show up at all hours to hand out food, clothes, toiletries, blankets and occasionally tents, while also avoiding the early-morning rousts of homeless who dare to sleep downtown. The camp’s residents also do a fair job of self-policing, watching over one another’s stuff and weeding out potential troublemakers.
Patterson certainly prefers it to the menacing chaos of Tent City, and he shows his appreciation by performing small chores. Off and on over the past several weeks, he’s painstakingly carved a narrow dirt stairway into the hillock leading to a gap in the chain-link fence along St. Paul.
If there’s a drawback, it’s the regular cleanups by the police crisis intervention unit, a team of outreach workers with twin responsibilities of nudging service-resistant homeless into shelters and making sure that their camps don’t develop into a danger to public health. So once every week or so they stop by with a hazmat team to clear away debris and sweep up any human waste.
The rub is they also throw away any stuff left behind in the camp when they arrive, and Patterson has prodigious amounts of stuff. On this afternoon in late December, it’s piled behind him in an unruly mound of trash bags, cardboard boxes, 5-gallon buckets, milk crates and a zebra-striped suitcase. Crisis intervention provides advance notice of their cleanups, but, like a sadistic cable guy, they give a window of several days rather than an exact time.
And so, for two or three mornings each week, Patterson hauls his stuff up the hillock and then hauls it back down at the end of the day. It’s a chore, but it’s far better than the alternative. He holds up a wooden staff that survived the cleanups, the only one of the six he once owned.
He puts down the staff and produces a length of rope he found while picking up litter. When he first spotted it in the dirt, “I jumped back like Moses when he saw the snake.” Then, like Moses, he reached out and took hold of the end and saw that it was, in fact, just a rope. He puts the rope away and rummages in a box behind him. “Someone even gave me this — no charge,” he says, proudly producing a grabbing tool he uses to pick up trash. He recalls with a sheepish chuckle how he once cussed out the intake staff at The Bridge when they wouldn’t let him take it inside the facility while he used the restroom. “Maybe I got some stubbornness in me,” he admits.
Down below, on the other side of a wooden fence, a group of kids can be glimpsed touring Dallas Heritage Village’s pioneer homestead while two sheep grazed placidly in a nearby pen. “Who knows what the kids are seeing when they go back there,” Melissa Prycer, the park’s executive director, says the next day during an interview at her office. The park hosts about 25,000 schoolchildren per year and is visited almost daily by the homeless preschoolers staying across the street at Vogel Alcove. “We worry a lot.”
The encampment along the northern border sprang up rather suddenly about a year and a half ago. “Before 2014 there were never tents,” Prycer said. “Just someone sleeping in that hollow, and we could call the police, and then they’d be gone and they wouldn’t come back. It happened very rarely.”
The Dallas Heritage Village camp appeared around the same time that Tent City a few blocks to the east was exploding from a handful of tents to a couple hundred. There was a simultaneous spike in the number of homeless loitering in the neighborhood, which corresponded to increased reports of harassment from staff members and mothers walking to Vogel Alcove, who now had to pick their way along sidewalks occupied by groups of homeless men.
There was evidence that the park’s new neighbors were slipping onto the grounds overnight. One morning, staffers discovered fresh cigarette butts in a hayloft, an alarming discovery for an outfit whose stock-in-trade is century-old wooden buildings. The cigarette butts, however, were not nearly so frightening as the out-of-control cook fire last summer that swept through dry grass and nearly ignited
the old winter school house.
When The Bridge shifted its entrance, it had the unintended consequence of funneling traffic directly into the Cedars which, like the Farmers Market, had been a gritty mix of light industry and urban ruins until about a decade ago when artists, then developers, discovered the neighborhood was incredibly close to downtown and remarkably cheap. As in the Farmers Market, gentrification has produced tensions with the resident homeless population.
Ragan’s counterpart in the Cedars is Michael Przekwas. Short with a knot of graying brown hair that gives him a perpetually rumpled look, he first visited the Cedars around 2006 to check out a lonely row of townhouses being built on McKee Street. “I remember getting out of the car and homeless people and crackheads literally climbed out of bushes. As soon as I lit a cigarette they just appeared,” he recalls. He left thinking, “Who would want to live down here?”
His opinion had softened by the following year, when he bought into a new townhouse development on Ervay Street.
Przekwas and Ragan differ in certain respects. Ragan is single-minded even in conversation, continuously circling back to talking points like a politician on the stump. Przekwas skips from subject to subject as his attention drifts. Ragan gently derides Przekwas as a homebody, content to stay in while she’s experiencing the city, while he ribs her for never having had occasion to remove the welcome ribbon from the oven that came with the Farmers Market townhouse she’s owned since 2013.
Both, however, embarked on aggressive neighborhood-building campaigns, spurred on by their outrage at the indignities of living at the center of Dallas homelessness. Driving through the Cedars one afternoon, Przekwas points to a strip of mottled concrete running along the base of a century-old brick building. “You can see — and I only know this because it’s been done at my house — urine and projectile diarrhea take the stain off cement.”
An energized crime watch, anchored by Przekwas’ almost continuous patrols of the neighborhood, helped. So did the arrival of a neighborhood patrol officer, as Dallas PD calls its old-style beat cops.
Other measures were even subtler. A staffer working for state Representative Eric Johnson, whose office is in the Cedars, gave Przekwas a book on fighting crime through environmental design. Neighbors cleared brush from several vacant lots and created pocket parks, opening up lines of sight so that neighbors could better keep an eye on things. Another problem lot, on the corner of Hickory and Ervay streets, was used regularly by church groups for large homeless feedings. After years of fruitlessly pleading with the churches to take their feedings — and the litter and loitering they invariably left behind — somewhere else, neighbors ringed the lot with hefty tree stumps. The feedings moved elsewhere.
As a finishing touch, the neighbors installed benches, which they painted pink. The homeless don’t use them much. “They think they’re too gay and people will think they’re gay if they’re sitting on the benches,” Przekwas says with a laugh. “I am not lying about that: They literally asked us to change the color of the benches.”
The cumulative impact was remarkable. There was still a large homeless presence in the neighborhood thanks to the social service agencies (Vogel Alcove, Cornerstone Baptist Church, Dallas Life, the Austin Street Shelter and, of course, The Bridge) that dot and border the neighborhood, but opportunistic property crime and quality-of-life complaints dropped to levels Przekwas and his neighbors could live with.
Then came 2014, and much of the progress evaporated. The shift in The Bridge’s entrance contributed to the backslide, but it was a comparatively minor factor. More problematic was the reassignment of the neighborhood beat cop and an abrupt policy shift by the Texas Department of Transportation that allowed Tent City and other encampments to explode.
In the past, the agency had worked with the city to clear out campsites that frequently sprouted on state-owned land beneath overpasses and alongside highways. In a letter to the city attorney’s office dated October 22, 2013, a TxDOT official announced an end to the arrangement.
“Due to a host of factors, TxDOT can no longer be involved in homeless cleanup events on State Right of Way (ROW) within the city limits unless there is an issue that affects our system’s integrity or the safety of the traveling public,” the official wrote.
The agency also rescinded the criminal trespass affidavits Dallas police had long relied upon to break up budding encampments. The ritual resembled an endless game of whack-a-mole, but in the absence of a sustainable fix for homelessness it prevented the camps from developing into permanent homeless settlements, which could only be a cancer on surrounding neighborhoods.
Neighbors have competing theories for TxDOT’s about-face. Some speculate that it arose from a dispute between TxDOT and the city over who should pay for the cleanups. Others think TxDOT grew afraid of being sued by homeless advocates. TxDOT’s own explanations are opaque but suggest that the agency seems to have experienced a legal road-to-Damascus moment.
“Criminal trespass affidavits were used in the past, but it was later determined that, to comply with existing law, the department would no longer deny access to public right of way,” TxDOT spokesman Tony Hartzel wrote in a January email. A year earlier, Hartzel helped draft a memo that was distributed to neighbors wondering why TxDOT wasn’t doing anything about Tent City.
“Freedom to loiter for innocent purposes is part of the ‘liberty’ protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” the memo opens. “Thus, absent a carefully drawn overriding public concern of some kind, citizens are free to be on public property.”
That said, Hartzel writes that “TxDOT will not oppose a city’s effort to enforce whatever measures or ordinances it deems appropriate.” In 2015, Dallas worked with the agency to outfit Tent City with dumpsters and portable toilets but it was no less unruly. Drugs are ubiquitous. A homeless man was recently murdered in a nearby lot.
The neighborhood is exasperated. “We have to be so careful when we talk about it because it’s the third rail of local politics, and we’re not anti-homeless, but we do not want that camp there,” Prycer says. It’s unsightly, dangerous and should never have been allowed to develop in the first place. “The thing that’s so frustrating is it wasn’t that long ago that things were different.”
Sam Patterson moved to Tent City beneath I-45 after being kicked out of a smaller encampment around New Year's.
The streets are mostly empty as Ragan’s Xterra trundles slowly through downtown. She stops beside a lot where one of her buildings used to stand. “I was walking the property and I saw someone peeking out at me — freaked me out.” Inside, her maintenance guy found a stack of pornography and a squatter, Tony, a well-known neighborhood character. “Tony would throw bricks through windows and liked to go to the bathroom on everybody’s front door,” Ragan says.
Ragan routinely crossed paths with Tony over the next several years. Once, he was placed into housing but was evicted after several months and returned to his usual street corner. On a cold night last winter, he paid a couple of bucks to sleep in a vacant building a few blocks away. He was found dead the next morning.
Officially, Dallas has made significant strides in its fight against homelessness. The addition of a couple of thousand permanent supportive housing units and the Dallas Housing Authority’s prioritization of homeless when distributing housing vouchers have helped dramatically reduce the homeless population. The drop in chronic homelessness — defined as individuals who have been without a permanent home for at least a year or have experienced four episodes of homelessness in three years — has been particularly sharp. According to Dallas’ annual, federally mandated homeless census, the number of chronically homeless plummeted from 1,181 in 2004 to 407 in 2012.
But those numbers mask how poor a job Dallas has done fighting poverty and providing affordable housing, both of which are inseparable from any discussion of homelessness. The poverty rate jumped from 17.8 percent in 2000 to 24.1 percent in 2014, which corresponds to an additional 87,000 people living within the Dallas city limits who are on the brink of homelessness. Tent City is teeming with people who have housing vouchers but can’t find any landlords with the space or the will to take them. It’s little surprise that the number of chronically homeless has begun to tick upward again in recent years.
The city is partnering with Dallas County and the nonprofit CitySquare to help plug the housing gap, pouring $6.8 million into the Cottages at Hickory Crossing. Aimed at the segment of the homeless population most intensely resistant to services, it represents the most significant investment in combating homelessness since The Bridge opened eight years ago. It has 50 units.
Ragan can’t do much to fix the underlying causes of homelessness, so she’s left trying to push its symptoms away from her neighborhood, which she now considers to include the whole of downtown.
A bit after 11 p.m., having covered perhaps four miles over the previous hour, Ragan gets a message on her phone and begins navigating back toward the Farmers Market.
Waiting for Ragan in the Green Door parking lot is City Council member Adam Medrano. He hops into the backseat.
When she represented the district, Medrano’s aunt, Pauline Medrano, was instrumental in the decision to place The Bridge next to the Farmers Market. But her nephew thinks the location was a mistake; he’s not even sure The Bridge should exist, at least not in a form the city has to pay $5 million per year to support.
“Is The Bridge really working? To me, it’s not. To me, it’s failed these people,” Medrano says, then adds the obligatory disclaimer that tends to accompany critiques of The Bridge. “We’re not the bad guys against the homeless. We want to give them the right help.” Typically quiet during council meetings, Medrano grilled Dunn during a recent City Council briefing, asking for more detailed budget figures and questioning the statistics — 7,000 homeless served last year, several hundred transitioned to permanent housing — but skeptics remain a minority on the council, which extended The Bridge’s funding through 2020.
In the meantime, Medrano has established himself as a firm ally in Ragan’s push to shift Dallas’ relationship with the homeless. Over the summer, Ragan spearheaded a social media campaign (#enforce) aimed at pressuring Dallas police to crack down on panhandling and public drinking. This primarily involved surreptitiously taking pictures of aggressive panhandlers and other low-level criminals, typically loitering in front of one of downtown’s many 7-Elevens, and posting them on Twitter and Facebook.
“We got chased by one who threw stuff at us,” Medrano recalls. “We took his picture and we weren’t slick enough — we thought we were — and he was like ‘Hey, what did y’all do?’ and she was gonna tweet it and I’m like, ‘Go!’”
A few weeks into the campaign, Dallas police added an overnight presence downtown and 7-Eleven increased security and stopped selling single-serve, high-gravity alcohol, which Ragan universally refers to as “40-ouncers.”
It’s been hard to see much lasting impact. “Instead of 40-ouncers, they started selling two-packs and running them cheap,” she laments. “People come in and split ’em up.” She drives to a 7-Eleven gas station on Ross Avenue and Griffin Street, where two men flank the entrance, standing directly beneath twin “no loitering” signs and asking passersby for money. One shopper doesn’t have cash but says he does have booze and weed. The panhandler hops into the passenger seat and shuts the door, then abruptly jumps back out. “The guy was probably asking for a favor,” Ragan says knowingly.
A third panhandler emerges from the side of the building and lurches over to Ragan’s vehicle. He stops to pick up a scrap of paper, which he shakes at the window as if expecting a reward for returning a valued piece of property. He seems like he’s trying to talk but all that comes out is an incomprehensible sequence of pleading grunts. After 30 seconds he gives up and shuffles back toward the entrance, where someone agrees to buy him a banana.
A private security guard pulls in next to Ragan. She and Medrano can see him filling out paperwork — a new requirement imposed by 7-Eleven after they complained that the security officers weren’t making their promised visits. The officer reluctantly gets out of his car and goes inside where he says something to the lurching panhandler, who’s now holding a banana. The panhandler finally leaves, followed by the security guy. Ragan is unimpressed. “Security’s useless,” she says.
Several weeks later, following a brutal carjacking in a Main Street parking garage, police handed Ragan and her allies a more dramatic victory, promising a “quality of life” initiative downtown, including an aggressive panhandling crackdown.
Heading back to the Green Door a few minutes after 1 a.m., she spots Patterson standing along Harwood Street outside First Presbyterian Church. A cotton blanket, too thin for a night in which temperatures dip into the 20s, is wrapped around his shoulders. Medrano recognizes him from a recent night out in Deep Ellum, when Patterson came up and handed him a driver’s license. Medrano found the owner on Facebook and returned her license.
Ragan shakes her head. “The thing that’s challenging is they all have a story,” she says.
Five minutes later, after Ragan and Medrano have disappeared into the Green Door, Patterson is still by the Presbyterian Church. He’d been kicked out of the Dallas Heritage Village encampment a couple of days before, owing to some whim of Wes, the encampment’s founder and de facto boss.
It was all going to work out though, Patterson says. One of the members of the crisis intervention team had come with a pickup and driven him and his stuff over to Tent City, where he acquired a dog-eared tent and a campsite. But tonight he’s staying on the church steps. His layers of cotton and denim and flannel would be enough to keep him warm. Plus, a 7-Eleven was a short two blocks away.
“I’m gonna get me one more cup of coffee,” he says. “That’ll warm me up.”