Love and Murder in Tent City
Mike Brownotter and Wendy Pierce met and built a family at Tent City — they are expecting their first child together — but they will have to find housing or be evicted on May 4.
Evening descends on Tent City. Overhead, the incessant whir of traffic on Interstate 45 has become a muffled groan with the onset of rush hour. The sun hasn’t yet sunk low enough to squeeze between the underside of the freeway and the roofs of the low-slung warehouses that surround it, but it will soon, briefly chasing away the otherwise permanent gloom.
Mike Brownotter and Wendy Pierce clamber from their shared tent. Pierce has scarcely emerged for the past two days. With a roll of her eyes, she explains she’s been avoiding their neighbor Ron, a rotund figure slouched on a dusty couch in front of the communal burn barrel. He’s normally jolly but grows obnoxious when drunk, and he’s been on a bender. As if on cue, Ron, apropos of nothing, hollers “ASS!” at the top of his lungs and cackles gleefully.
Pierce and Brownotter ignore the outburst and take seats away from Ron, she in a camp chair, he on a stout tree stump. Brownotter is 43, and his jet-black hair is flecked with strands of gray. He keeps it pulled back in a slender, shoulder-length ponytail that hangs from the backwards baseball cap he wears. In Texas, his olive complexion marks him as Hispanic, but he’s full-blood Sioux with roots in South Dakota. Pierce is 41 with dirty blond hair and freckles. Her pale green eyes are wide and slightly off-kilter. When she raises her eyebrows, as she does frequently in serious conversation, they give her a bewildered look.
By Tent City standards, they are models of sobriety and rectitude. Brownotter, who is imposing when he rises to full height and squares his shoulders, acts as a peacekeeper in the camp, intercepting potential threats when they stumble into camp and evicting those who fail to comply with their section’s “no asshole” policy. “Wendy is lucid,” one of her neighbors says. “She has good judgment.”
The couple drinks more than they’d like. They’ve tried smoking K2 and there was what Brownotter refers to vaguely as the “mushroom incident,” but, unlike many of their friends, they don’t start shaking if they go without alcohol. They steer clear of hard drugs, and they don’t manifest any obvious symptoms of mental illness.
The story of how Pierce and Brownotter, both clear-headed and able-bodied, came to be living under a bridge offers certain clues about how Tent City came into existence and the challenges of making it go away. After a few weeks of deliberation, they agree to be interviewed by the Observer.
Today, there is breaking news that’s more pressing than their backstories. Several days before, a man was stabbed to death in Tent City just on the other side of Hickory Street. It had unsettled Pierce and Brownotter. They’d seen the squall of police cars arrive. The scene had been cleared by the time they ventured across the street, but a spray of dried blood was still on the headlight of a parked car.
The murder, the second in as many months, immediately elevated Tent City from a festering embarrassment for the city of Dallas into a crisis. Officials had spent the weekend discussing potential action plans. Some wanted to shut down Tent City immediately. Others sought to buy time to find its residents housing or shelter space.
In the end, they agreed on a deadline of May 4. It’s late February now, which gives Pierce and Brownotter roughly 10 weeks to find a new place to stay.
The couple are mystified. To them, lumping their relatively orderly piece of Tent City in with the unruly sections to the north seems unfair. Even more unfair is blaming Tent City for the first murder, which happened in January next to a tiny camp that had sprung up on a vacant lot a half mile down Hickory. If north of Hickory Street is a different neighborhood, a vacant lot down the street is another city.
Their dominant emotion, however, is resignation. They’d found a community in Tent City and a modicum of contentment. They even adopted a puppy, Lillith, a pit-bull mix who is scampering over by their tent, kicking up a cloud of ashen dust as she worries a tattered pink soccer ball. At the same time, deep down, they never really expected it to last.
They fall silent, letting the news sink in. Traffic is still creaking by overhead. Ron is still cackling. The gloom sits heavily on the camp.
Their reverie is broken by the appearance of a shiny black Jeep creeping down Hickory Street. Brownotter stares as the driver rolls down the window, levels his smartphone, and snaps a couple of photos.
Pierce and Brownotter take him for just another rubbernecker come to gawk at the grim spectacle beneath I-45. If they were better versed in municipal politics, Brownotter and Pierce might have recognized Adam
McGough, a square-jawed Lake Highlands attorney elected to the City Council in 2015.
McGough, along with his 14 council colleagues, will ultimately decide the fate of Tent City and its 300 residents, and he just drove away without stepping out of his Jeep.
Tent City hit Dallas like a sucker punch. Over the previous dozen years, the city had made significant gains in the fight against homelessness. It invested heavily in permanent supportive housing and The Bridge, a one-stop shelter and social services provider. The Dallas Housing Authority implemented a policy of placing homeless applicants at the top of the waiting list for the 17,500 housing vouchers it manages. Between 2004 and 2012, the city’s population of chronically homeless dropped by two-thirds, from nearly 1,200 individuals to a shade over 400.
The rosy statistics obscured deep weaknesses in Dallas’ social safety net. The already high poverty rate was steadily climbing. A booming housing market was putting the squeeze on low-income renters. Society still had no real place for felons and the mentally ill. There was no slack in the shelters, which were either full or had such strict requirements that many homeless preferred to stay on the streets.
These forces converged beneath I-45 thanks largely to a bureaucratic tiff between the city and the Texas Department of Transportation. Historically, the two agencies had worked together to shoo the homeless from beneath freeway overpasses, but in late 2013 TxDOT informed the city that the homeless had a constitutional right to be on state property and stopped cooperating. Lacking legal cover from TxDOT, Dallas stopped as well.
Homeless have been living beneath I-45 for decades. A few Tent City residents claim to have been in the same spot for a decade or more, but they’d always slept beneath cardboard and the regular police rousts kept their numbers low. Sometime after Dallas and TxDOT reached their impasse tents began popping up like little beacons, signaling to others that here was a place they could camp unmolested.
Cindy Crain arrived in Dallas in the spring of 2015, just as Tent City was beginning to sprout. Crain, diminutive but fearless, with a no-frills sweep of blond hair and alert blue eyes, had spent the previous seven years turning the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition into a model homeless services agency. She’d moved east to do the same for the stagnant Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, an umbrella organization that coordinates homeless services in the area and serves as a conduit for $17 million annually in federal funding.
Dave Hogan, a social worker who leads Dallas Police Department’s small homeless outreach team, took Crain to the camp early in her tenure. By then, Tent City had a few dozen residents and all the trappings of a permanent settlement. “Holy buckets!” Crain exclaimed. “This is nothing like I did in Fort Worth!”
The problem was hardly unique to Dallas. In the wake of the great recession’s housing collapse, tent cities popped up throughout the country. The official response varied from place to place. Most were eventually cleared away, some indiscriminately, some after careful planning. Elsewhere, the camps were hosted on private property by churches or other organizations. In a few places like Portland and Seattle, local governments sanctioned and regulated camps.
Crain had encountered them occasionally in Fort Worth, at least one of them housing several dozen people. Officials would clear them out with minimal fuss and connect displaced residents with social services and shelter space.
Dallas Tent City was a different beast. It was oppressive and filthy, with garbage strewn about the camp and human waste spattered on concrete pillars. Particularly alarming to Crain was the extraordinary number of women sleeping beneath I-45. “So you know there’s absolute violence, subjugation,” she says.
More than that, it was evidence that, mixed in with the service-resistant homeless who would likely wind up under a bridge regardless of housing availability, were many people who wouldn’t have been in Tent City if they had any other options.
Crain knew the camp had to go. Tent City was a threat to public health and an affront to the rule of law. No group, however marginalized, could simply commandeer a piece of public property, and in time the volatile mix of mental illness, unchecked substance abuse and claustrophobic living conditions likely would erupt in catastrophic violence.
Crain also knew that bulldozing Tent City without first giving dwellers a realistic shot at housing and other services would be inhumane and self-defeating.
Luckily, the solution was straightforward. Additional resources would be nice, but really it was a matter of resolve. Tent City needed outreach workers on the ground, building trust with residents. Advocates needed to be aggressive about finding clients housing; handing them a list of apartments and a bus pass wouldn’t cut it any more. “You have to hold their hands from the bridge until they have a key to their apartment,” Crain said in January. “That’s a new concept here.”
In the meantime, something had to be done about the squalor. In September, when the city installed dumpsters and portable toilets, Crain was predicting that Tent City would be taken care of by spring.
Cindy Crain, president and CEO of Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, has been heavily criticized for her perceived bungling of Tent City.
Pierce and Brownotter’s courtship began in early 2015 in the no-man’s land between Deep Ellum and Fair Park, about a mile east of Tent City. Brownotter had bounced between friends and relatives following his release from prison two years earlier until, unable to find steady work and not wanting to overstay his welcome, he left. He stayed at Union Gospel Mission for a while but grew weary of the early afternoon curfew and the imperious manner of the “disciples,” as the shelter called its trusties. Eventually, he settled in a small encampment that occupied a grassy strip near where the Santa Fe Trail passes over Haskell Avenue.
Pierce arrived at the camp a few weeks later. She’d become homeless a couple of years earlier after losing her job distributing government-subsidized cell phones. That happened around the time Lewisville police pulled her over for an improper turn and found meth and pills in her purse, though she’s fuzzy on which came first, the lost job or the traffic stop. In any event, when she was released from her three-month jail sentence, she didn’t have an apartment. She camped for a while in downtown Richardson behind a row of businesses with an unguarded water faucet, moved in with a boyfriend, went through a nasty breakup, then stayed with her sister. When they had a falling out, she spent a few days at a camp on the fringe of South Dallas’ Dolphin Heights neighborhood before a friend invited her to the I-30 camp.
Pierce and Brownotter knew each other by sight. They were both regulars at Our Calling, a homeless ministry in a gray brick warehouse a block up the bike trail from their new camp, where they’d go to shower and drink coffee, but they’d never actually spoken. Brownotter was always by himself and wearing earbuds, solemn and unapproachable.
Now that they were neighbors, they began to talk. Brownotter told her of his childhood in West Dallas, where his parents moved so their nine kids wouldn’t have to grow up on the reservation. The family lived on Obenchain Street, a tight-packed row of downmarket cottages a couple of blocks from the Trinity River. As a boy, Brownotter and his friends would commandeer stray cardboard boxes and use them to sled down the grassy face of the levee.
In late elementary school, as their marriage was beginning to fall apart, his parents sent him to a Native American boarding school in southeastern Oklahoma. (Ron, his future Tent City neighbor and a member of the Choctaw tribe, was his classmate.) He stayed there for several years, returning to Dallas for the summer. When he was in high school, his dad summoned him to Minnesota, where he’d moved after the divorce.
Brownotter dropped out of school just shy of graduation. He moved to Irving and fell in with a gang. One night, at a house party in Grand Prairie, one of his friends staggered through the front door, beaten bloody by a rival gang. Brownotter and three friends, out of their minds on alcohol and cocaine, piled into a car to seek revenge. “We felt 10 feet tall and invincible,” Brownotter told Pierce, shaking his head at their stupidity.
They drove by the rival gang’s house party in Arlington and opened fire. A few days later, police tracked down the car and got a confession. “One person rolled on us.” Brownotter was sentenced to two decades in prison. He was 20.
Around the time Brownotter was going to prison, Pierce was dropping out of school. She’d been born in Florida and raised in Plano. Her father worked as a mechanic for car dealerships. Her mother ran JP’s Deli, a mom-and-pop lunch spot. When the family moved to Wylie, they kept Pierce at Plano Senior High until she wrecked her car when she was 17. Unable to make the commute and not interested in finding an alternative, she quit, just as her two brothers had done. College “just, you know, never happened,” she says.
Pierce spent the next couple of decades bouncing between low-wage jobs — the mall, Pizza Hut, a family friend’s medical supply company, the Room Store, a Ramada Inn. She married in 2000, then got divorced.
Pierce and Brownotter gradually drifted closer. That spring, she got a job working the Easter photo shoot at The Shops at Willow Bend mall in Plano. She’d worked holiday photo shoots there before, but this was the first time she’d let her boss talk her into wearing the Easter bunny costume. Her commute, two hours each way on a succession of DART trains and buses, got her to Fair Park around midnight, and she asked if Brownotter would escort her on the half-mile walk back to their camp. He obliged. Soon, he was accompanying her everywhere: on trips to Our Calling to do laundry and shower, to Deep Ellum to catch a show, to Thanks-Giving Square on Sundays for an open-air street ministry.
Brownotter’s friends noticed their connection before he did. On the rare occasions they’d see Brownotter by himself, they’d ask where he’d left his girlfriend. “Girlfriend?” he would respond, puzzled. “We’re just hanging out.” Pretty soon, though, not long before they began sharing a tent, even Brownotter couldn’t ignore the fact that they were a couple.
In September, police warned the camp’s residents to clear out before the State Fair of Texas opened at the end of the month. Pierce and Brownotter piled their belongings into shopping carts and pitched their tent on a patch of dirt just south of Hickory Street on what was then Tent City’s southern frontier.
The corner of Tent City they settled into is populated mostly by easygoing drunks and lacks the menace of other sections like Rock City, the open-air crack den immediately to their north, where the second murder took place, and Ice Mountain, as they call the section that spills toward the I-30 service road on account of its free-flowing meth.
Their community is centered on the burn barrel, which police mandated after downtown-area homeowners started complaining of bonfires in Tent City. In addition to the couch, there’s a plush recliner and several more utilitarian chairs, plus a plywood sideboard stocked with snacks and utensils. Residents gather there daily to talk and drink. They also have a grill box. On many days, someone will buy a pork roast or chicken parts from a nearby meat wholesaler. Everyone digs in, ignoring the inevitable seasoning of grit.
The gatherings have the easy camaraderie that comes when people have spent an extended period of time together in close quarters, something like a freshman dorm, albeit without the youth and optimism. Everyone there has flunked out of mainstream society. Chad, who’s lived in a nearby tent with his girlfriend, Chloe, likes to say that there are three reasons why people wind up in Tent City: “You’re either fucked up in the head, you want to get fucked up or you don’t want to be found.”
Still, Chad considers his neighbors to be his family. He was arrested recently for outstanding warrants and spent several days in jail. He was welcomed back to camp by friends with joyous salutations, a beer and a cigarette — a far warmer reception than he would have received from any blood relatives.
For all the camaraderie, and for all the advantages over jam-packed shelters and other camps, Pierce and Brownotter find life in Tent City monotonous and bleak.
Ibrahim, a Sudanese neighbor who speaks wistfully of Faulkner and the literary career he abandoned when he fled his native country, found a job at a relative’s convenience store and moved into a rooming house, but he keeps coming back to the fire to drink himself into a stupor. His drinking cost him his wife and son, who live by themselves in Irving. He has tried to stop, once staying sober for four years, but eventually he’d wind up with a bottle in his hand again. Another neighbor, Adam, moved into The Bridge, acquired a bicycle, and landed a job delivering sandwiches for Jimmy John’s. But he’s in his 50s and has trouble maintaining the required pace. The job becomes particularly tough once he moves back to Tent City and has to battle raging hangovers in addition to downtown traffic. He lost the job, pawned the bike and used the money to get drunk. A skeletal, wild-eyed woman joined the camp. Her delusions of artistic grandeur and the childish, Crayola-marker sketches are tolerable, but when she begins spuriously and indiscriminately accusing men of rape, threatening to bring trouble from other sections of Tent City, Brownotter asks her to move. Her belongings remain piled in a tattered heap weeks after she leaves.
When he was in prison, Brownotter worked in the kitchen, frequently pulling double shifts to keep himself busy. On the outside, he sometimes gets day labor work through friends at church, but he’s given up hope of finding a steady job. Hearing that Baker’s Ribs in Deep Ellum was hiring, he stopped by to fill out an application. He was feeling almost optimistic about his prospects until he came to the section asking if he’d ever been convicted of a felony. He felt a familiar sinking feeling in his gut as he checked yes. He never heard back.
The idleness wears on him. Asked which he prefers, prison or freedom, he starts to answer, stops short, and furrows his brow in thought. After a moment he answers: “That’s a good question.”
The days shorten and the weather grows cold. The fire, fed by splintered pallets, particle board and other donated scraps of wood, burns constantly, blanketing the camp in a stifling pall of wood smoke. A man who lives in a dilapidated house a short walk down Hickory, furious to discover that someone has stolen his litter of pit bull puppies, kidnaps Lillith from Pierce at gunpoint. A friend, Cody, marches to the man’s house later and pulls Lillith over the fence by the scruff of her neck.
In late December, Pierce begins to feel queasy and realized that she’d missed her period. She bought a home pregnancy test and took it one evening, but the indicator was blank. She set it aside and went to bed. When she awoke, the test lay on the ground, gouged with tooth marks from where Lillith had repurposed it as a chew toy. She picked it up and looked at the indicator. It was positive. A sonogram the following day at a crisis pregnancy center downtown confirmed it: Pierce, 41 years old and living under a bridge, is going to have a baby.
On the police report, his name was listed as John Doe. He’d been living in Tent City for some time, but as his neighbors gathered around his body, his blood caking the sandy dirt beneath, no one could say what his name was.
Officers later identified him as 51-year-old Clifford Murray. On the evening of February 16, witnesses told police that he’d tried to intervene when a neighbor, Bennie Valentine, grabbed a woman he was arguing with. Later, Valentine would report that he’d felt something strike his back and turned to see Murray wielding a broom handle. After finding the body, police tracked Valentine down near his tent and asked what had happened. “I cut him,” Valentine replied.
A month earlier, seated at her desk in the lemon-yellow Victorian cottage where MDHA offices, Crain had breezily hopscotched through the reforms she was making to Dallas’ homeless-service system. Before, MDHA couldn’t collect basic data on homelessness because the dozen biggest service providers all kept their own computer systems; now, Crain was pushing for the adoption of a shared system. Before, the homeless were put into housing largely based on how well their case manager could leverage their contacts in other agencies; Crain was implementing a centralized assessment system that would score individuals based on the severity of their condition and funnel them into housing accordingly.
Tent City had been growing rapidly; a weekly count conducted later that morning put the number of tents at 220, a fourfold expansion since the city installed the portable toilets and dumpsters. But Crain was confident that, with her reforms and with the proper application of resources, Tent City would soon be tamed.
A cardboard box by her desk was packed with white fleece caps emblazoned with a lone figure huddled against the Dallas skyline. Crain slipped one on. “Count swag,” she said and grinned. MDHA’s annual homeless census was only a few days away.
Over the phone three days after the murder, Crain expressed remorse for failing to take more decisive action. “I knew in October we had to shut it down,” she scolded herself. But, she said, she’d let herself be distracted by a multimillion dollar grant application and preparations for the annual homeless count. “I never knew it would continue to grow over the holiday.”
Crain had spent the past several days huddling with city leaders and crafting a new plan for Tent City. It called for assigning 10 full-time caseworkers to Tent City rather than the ad hoc outreach team MDHA had been deploying once a week. Crain and the city would work aggressively to expand shelter capacity, persuading existing providers to add beds and investigating whether any vacant government-owned properties like Dawson State Jail or the old Parkland Hospital could be converted into temporary shelters. Police, who had taken a hands-off approach to Tent City, would begin patrolling the area.
Strategically, the new plan wasn’t much different from the one Crain had put together at the end of the summer, but it was much more aggressive. “I got the process right, the tools right, [but] the resources and the scale all wrong,” Crain said.
City Council member Scott Griggs chairs the housing committee and has been deeply involved in discussions about Tent City.
When Pierce posted news of her pregnancy on Facebook, her best friend asked why she didn’t have an abortion. Pierce was appalled, but a few days later the friend sent an apology signed “XOXO.”
“We’re all good,” Pierce says.
It’s mid-March, and Pierce’s belly has begun to swell visibly. Service providers who regularly interact with the homeless sometimes encounter phantom pregnancies, women who tell people they’re pregnant but never show any outward sign. Pierce’s pregnancy, however, is undeniably real. From a folder containing medical documents, she produces a printout from her most recent sonogram, a ribbon of grainy, black-and-white images showing a tiny human form. In one, a slender white arrow points to a tiny, almost indiscernible protrusion. It’s a boy.
Brownotter wants to name him Wambli, a Lakota word meaning “golden eagle.” Pierce likes the name but isn’t sold, mainly because she wants to name the boy after her brother and father, and “Wambli Wayne” sounds awkward.
Because of her advanced age (she hasn’t mentioned that she’s living under a bridge), Pierce visits her obstetrician every other week and swallows a battery of prenatal vitamins every morning. She’s found it easy to quit drinking; she tried to have a beer but became ill after a few sips. Kicking her cigarillo habit has
been harder. So far, though, both she and the child have remained healthy.
The couple recently upgraded their living arrangement, switching from a four-man to an eight-person tent, but the improvement has been marginal. The camp’s mice quickly nibbled through the fabric and can be heard scurrying around the floor at night. Every now and then, Pierce will feel one scamper across her hair.
They’ve seen some evidence of Crain’s resource surge. Their tent, for example, is now tagged with an alphanumeric address, and Pierce has been assigned to a caseworker from the city’s housing department, but permanent shelter still seems impossibly distant. Pierce heard of a group home for pregnant women in Cedar Hill, but she’s uncomfortable with the idea of sharing a house with so many other women and is wary of trapping herself in a city with no bus service.
That leaves vouchers, and the voucher market, the primary means of housing homeless individuals who don’t need intensive support, is impossibly tight.
“Back when the housing collapse happened, 2007, 2008, 2009, landlords were coming to us wanting voucher holders,” says DHA President MaryAnn Russ. “They were desperate.” With the housing market surging, “they don’t need us anymore.”
Landlords who still accept vouchers have gotten far more selective about their tenants. Old evictions or minor criminal convictions can be disqualifiers. “There are a lot of families we just can’t house,” says Rebecca Lawton, a housing navigator with Family Gateway. She recalls trying to place a single mother with six children who had a misdemeanor fraud conviction from 2009. “One thing,” Lawton says in disbelief. “Everybody refused her.”
Paul Darrow, one of Pierce and Brownotter’s neighbors in Tent City, searched for three months before finding an apartment complex that would accept his voucher only to have the offer rescinded when the landlord discovered his unpaid public intoxication fines.
Brownotter can’t even get that far. The federal government requires individuals seeking housing assistance to present a birth certificate, Social Security card and state-issued photo ID. Brownotter has the first two, but his attempts to acquire the photo ID have been a Kafkaesque failure. When his father applied for Brownotter’s Social Security card, he wrote “Michael,” the usual spelling, not realizing that Brownotter’s mother had inverted the vowels — “Micheal” — on his birth certificate. When he visited the Texas Department of Public Safety, he was told he’d have to legally change his name to acquire an ID.
Pierce and Brownotter will stay in Tent City until they find housing or, as seems more likely with the May 4 deadline fast approaching, until they are evicted.
It’s a warm sunny morning at the end of March and Tent City is quiet. A small memorial marks the spot where Murray died — a craft-store cross hung with a tattered pink ribbon and surrounded at the base by a single ring of concrete bricks and a pocket Bible. Not far away, a dumpster overflows into the dirt. A worn paperback, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, lies face up amidst the garbage.
Pierce and Brownotter’s tent is empty. A neighbor suggests checking Our Calling, where a line is snaking into the fenced-in parking lot. Pierce and Brownotter are with Ron at one of the tables. It’s hard to hear over the din of the conversation so they agree to go sit at one of the picnic tables outside.
They field questions about their families and childhoods, how they met and how they became homeless. They’ve gone through this before, but they don’t mind rehashing the details. Pierce also doesn’t mind giving their last names, but Brownotter pulls me aside as I leave. He’d prefer if the story didn’t mention his full name, he says nervously. He’s put his past behind him and didn’t want to rekindle any old gang rivalries.
Brownotter had said that the drive-by happened in Arlington and that he’d been prosecuted in Tarrant County, but a search for his name in the county’s criminal database came up empty.
Google was more fruitful. A search for his name brought up a photo of Brownotter, his black hair wild without the cap, staring out from the state’s sex offender registry. He’d been convicted a quarter century earlier of aggravated sexual assault of a child for raping his nephew. Brownotter was 17, his nephew 5.
A few days later, Pierce and Brownotter are at Our Calling, drinking coffee and skimming the Wall Street Journal. I ask if there’s somewhere we can talk privately, and we head outside. It’s drizzling but there’s a dry spot beneath the eaves at the building’s corner. A couple of homeless men stand against the gray brick wall smoking cigarettes.
Brownotter is wearing a baggy green hockey jersey. He folds his arms across his chest and stares blankly at the pavement. Did it really happen? Did he do it? He nods. He doesn’t deny or try to minimize it. The only explanation he can offer is that he was young and stupid and high out of his mind when it happened. He wishes like hell he could take it back, but he can’t.
Being on the sex offender registry means his chances of landing a job or apartment are even more negligible than if he was merely a violent felon; lifetime sex offender registration is one of the few automatic disqualifiers for housing vouchers. But part of him hoped he’d moved on. People in Tent City tend not to probe too deeply into one another’s past, and he’d managed to build a life there. Pretty soon, he was going to be a father.
I ask if he’s told Pierce. His eyes are welling up but don’t leave the pavement. He shakes his head. He was planning to, he says. Still is. But then he trails off.
If there’s no way to keep his sex offender charge out of the story, then maybe, he suggests, “just scrap it.”
I tell him I’ll talk it over with my editor. I leave him standing there beneath the eaves.
Bridget Turner emerges from her tent and shambles across an empty expanse of dirt below I-45 just south of Ferris Street. She wears flipflops and a windbreaker over a tattered cotton dress, her hair pulled into a tight knot covered with stretchy black fabric. Halfway to the street she stops short and scrunches up her face in bewilderment. The camp’s portable toilet had disappeared, removed by the city a few hours earlier.
“Wake up and no toilet! Man….” Turner mutters in disbelief. “That don’t make no sense.”
And so the closure of Tent City begins.
The plan to remove the encampment by May 4 had hit a snag the previous week when Crain and Bernadette Mitchell, the city’s housing director, appeared before the Dallas City Council and admitted that housing progress had been slow and that there was as yet no formal plan detailing exactly how the residents would be removed, what would be done about their belongings or how police were going to keep evicted residents from returning or simply migrating to other encampments.
Crain came in for a tongue-lashing. She had repeatedly overpromised and underdelivered on Tent City, and council members were frustrated at the lack of progress. Councilman Adam Medrano questioned her competence, referring to her acerbically as “so-called expert Cindy Crain” and wondering if Tent City could really be solved through outreach and housing. “It’s the same plan I heard in August of last year.”
After the meeting, Crain went to work. For all of her shortcomings as a crisis manager, she’s an expert technician. She has a keen understanding of the weak spots in Dallas’ homeless support system and knows how to shore them up. She’s also an obsessive worker. By the following Monday, she had met with other officials and hammered out a detailed, eight-page plan for closing Tent City.
The closure will take place in phases. First up is the southernmost and most lightly populated segment, which officials have designated as Sector A, where Tuner lives. Pressure on the residents is being increased over several days. First, officials visit and hand out removal notices. Then they remove the portable toilets and dumpsters. Finally, the police come and arrest anyone who refuses to leave.
Once Sector A is secured, officials will repeat the procedure on Sector E, Tent City’s northern terminus, and then progress inward.
Pierce and Brownotter live in Sector B, which gives them until May 4 to leave.
Tent City’s population has already begun to shrink. “People are disappearing,” says Councilman Scott Griggs, who chairs the city’s housing committee. Many of them are disappearing into housing.
The February 16 murder of Clifford Murray jump-started previously sluggish outreach efforts. Tent City residents who before the killing had shrugged blankly when asked about housing now often report substantive progress. Ron, lounging on the recliner while waiting for the liquor store to open at 10 a.m., says he’s been promised housing through Metrocare, the county’s mental health provider, that will include treatment for bipolar disorder. He hopes not to get kicked out of the program like he did last time. Adam, after losing his job at Jimmy Johns, checked into alcohol rehab and entered a court diversion program that will take care of several thousand dollars worth of court fines, mostly from public intoxication arrests. He was released to a bed at Austin Street and bought his bike back from the pawn shop. Darrow, who’d spent months fruitlessly searching for a landlord to accept his voucher, is scheduled to move into his new apartment on April 16.
But while the pace of housing has accelerated, it hasn’t done so nearly fast enough to take in Tent City’s entire population by May 4. Crain estimates that about 150 residents will still be without housing when Tent City closes. Shelters have agreed to add enough beds to accommodate the leftovers, but it’s doubtful that many will accept the offer.
One man with sunken, jaundiced eyes sums up the sentiment as he hauls a garbage bag of aluminum cans down Hickory Street: “Man, fuck the shelters.”
Brownotter climbs from his tent into the gloom of Tent City. He winces in pain, gingerly rubbing his jaw where one of his molars is aching. He has no way to pay for a dentist, so unless he decides to pull it himself, dental care isn’t an option.
Although he and Pierce have until the last day to find a new place to stay, they aren’t optimistic. Pierce’s caseworker had dropped by a couple of days earlier and informed her that somehow her name hadn’t been added to the waiting list for housing vouchers. Brownotter doesn’t care much where he sleeps, so long as it doesn’t interfere with Pierce finding a roof to sleep under.
It’s mid-morning, and Tent City is swallowed in its band of perpetual shadow. Rush hour is over, and cars can be heard whizzing by overhead. Lillith, nearly full grown now, scampers through the dirt, kicking up a cloud of dust. Ron lounges on the recliner. And Pierce and Brownotter wait.