Between now and May 4, Tent City's 300-plus residents will have to find a new home.
The city set the deadline late Thursday after intensive discussions with the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, neighbors and homeless service providers. The encampment, which sprawls for about a mile beneath Interstate 45 just southeast of downtown, has vexed officials since it took root in 2014.
Last fall, the city installed dumpsters and portable toilets as a temporary public health measure while outreach teams steered the 60 or so homeless people living there at the time into housing, which was supposed to happen by March 1. But the plan backfired. Tent City, which now promised rapid housing in addition to myriad other attractions (i.e., easy access to social service agencies, ubiquitous church feedings, nonexistent enforcement of drug, alcohol and public-sleeping laws), became a magnet. By last week, it had swelled to more than 250 camp sites.
MDHA president and CEO Cindy Crain, who urged the council to adopt the portable toilet plan, said she made a mistake. "I knew in October we had to shut it down," she said on Friday morning. However, Crain says she was distracted by other matters, namely a $20 million grant application her agency was preparing to submit and preparations for the annual homeless census, her first since moving to Dallas from Fort Worth last spring.
She also badly underestimated what a magnet Tent City would become. Outreach at Tent City was mostly limited to Wednesdays, when staffers from MDHA, CitySquare, Metrocare and other social service agencies would fan out through the camp to identify the Tent City residents most urgently in need of housing and help connect them with housing. They succeeded in housing around a dozen individuals, but for each one who left, 20 newcomers took their place. Crain wishes now that she had assigned full-time case managers to Tent City and pursued a much more aggressive outreach strategy.
"That's where my failure was. I got the process right, the tools right [but] the resources and the scale all wrong," Crain said.
The debate over what to do about Tent City, which had already begun tilting toward demolition, gained urgency this week when an unidentified homeless man — his Tent City neighbors know him only as "G" — was murdered. Bennie Charles Valentine, 54, told police that he stabbed the man while trying to break up a fight between his girlfriend and a woman nicknamed Peaches. It was the second Tent City-related murder in a month.
"The [Dallas City Council] wanted to shut it down immediately," Crain says, but cooler heads prevailed.
"Everyone understands we have to do this in the right way, with safety and sensitivity," says councilman Scott Griggs, who chairs the council's housing committee. "So it was decided that the more time the better."
That said, with the recent murders underscoring the public safety issues that inevitably arise when several hundred individuals — most of whom have mental health issues, abuse alcohol, have serious criminal records, or some combination of the three — gather in one place, and with growing pressure from residents of the Cedars, downtown and South Dallas, the city's patience is limited. The May 4 deadline is real. Griggs says the city's attorneys are working to draft eviction notices that will be posted at Tent City in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, Crain says she's going to do what she should have done in the first place, which is to throw all available resources at Tent City. CitySquare has already pledged two caseworkers to work Tent City. So has Metrocare. Within a couple of weeks she hopes to bring the total to 10, two for each of Tent City's five sections.
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MDHA is also conducting an audit of permanent supportive housing providers, to see if she can locate any unused capacity, and pressuring emergency shelters like The Bridge to see if they can free up space or add beds. In addition, Griggs says the city is asking the county to use some of its buildings for empty shelter space.
If all goes according to plan, officials will succeed in making a small dent in the Tent City population over the next two months, but their efforts won't solve the fundamental problem that's fueled its explosion and stymied Crain's efforts to check the growth: an acute lack of affordable housing. Dallas hasn't invested in enough of it to keep pace with rising poverty levels, and federal housing vouchers have lost much of their potency in Dallas' booming real estate market. Landlords that five years ago were desperate for voucher holders and the guaranteed income stream they provide now have their pick of tenants able to pay market rate. Crain says seven Tent City residents currently have housing vouchers but can't find a landlord to take them.
And so, inevitably, there will still be plenty of Tent City to bulldoze once May 4 rolls around. "People are going to scatter," Crain acknowledges. For now, she's focused on making sure the number is as small as possible.
"None of us created homelessness. It took a shitload of broken systems in our society to create what's going on under that bridge."