Another Murder in Tent City

Tent City, the sprawling homeless encampment beneath Interstate 45 just southeast of downtown, has claimed its second victim in a month.

Dallas police responded to a stabbing call at Tent City just before 6 p.m. on Tuesday. There, in a patch of dirt near Hickory Street, they found the body of an unidentified man in his early 50s.

Police quickly zeroed in on 54-year-old Bennie Charles Valentine as the prime suspect. When asked by responding officers to describe what happened, Valentine responded that "I cut him," according to an arrest affidavit.

Valentine was taken to Dallas PD headquarters, where he waived his right to remain silent and described in more detail what had happened. According to the affidavit, Valentine told homicide detectives that his girlfriend had been involved in a fight with another woman, who goes by the name of Peaches. Valentine said he confronted Peaches about jumping on his girlfriend, at which point someone began hitting him across his shoulder with a stick.

Valentine said he grabbed his knife and turned, stabbing the man with the stick two or three times. He also admitted to stabbling Peaches after she'd jumped on his back. Both Peaches and the unidentified man with the stick ran off, at which point Valentine and his girlfriend walked back to their tent, smoked a cigarette, and decided to tell police what happened. Valentine is being held in Dallas County Jail on a $500,000 bond.

On January 18, a homeless man, 50-year-old Dana Hunter, was murdered at a smaller encampment on a vacant lot a few blocks down Hickory Street that sprung up recently as a kind of Tent City suburb.

Tent City has been vexing Dallas officials since it sprang up some time during 2014. Homeless have long camped under I-45. Some Tent City residents say they've lived there for more than a decade. But their footprint was limited by police enforcement of criminal trespass affidavits filed by the Texas Department of Transportation. TxDOT even regularly helped with cleanups of budding encampment.

In late 2013, however, TxDOT had a legal road-to-Damascus moment and informed the city that it would no longer be cooperating with homeless cleanups. They also rescinded the criminal trespass affidavits. In a statement to the Observer, TxDOT spokesman Tony Hartzel said the agency stopped the criminal trespass program "to comply with existing law."

The agency was more elaborate in a memo it distributed to neighbors about a year ago. “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 reads. “Thus, absent a carefully drawn overriding public concern of some kind, citizens are free to be on public property.”

TxDOT insists that the city of Dallas can take whatever actions it deems necessary, but absent legal cover from TxDOT, the city stopped shooing tents off of TxDOT property. What began as a smattering of a few tents quickly metastasized. By the time the Dallas City Council began discussing the encampment in earnest last fall, it had turned into a permanent settlement.

Rather than simply clear out Tent City, as the city has done with other encampments in the past, most notably in the weeks leading up to the 1994 World Cup when it bulldozed a remarkably similar encampment that had taken root between downtown and Deep Ellum, the council opted for a more humane approach. Led by Councilman Scott Griggs, the city and TxDOT installed portable toilets and dumpsters to address public health concerns while officials worked to find housing for Tent City residents.

The plan was for Tent City to be gone by March 1, but only a handful of Tent City residents have found housing. In the meantime, more and more homeless have flocked to the encampment. Partly this is because Tent City, with its proximity to social services and the frequency with which church groups drop off food, clothes and other donations, offers ready sustenance. (In one section, a general store has sprung up offering, for a small fee, soda, phone charging and tent repair.) Partly this is because Tent City is like Dallas' Hamsterdam, where police turn a blind eye to drinking and drug use. And partly this is because the intense political focus on Tent City has led many homeless to believe that they have a better shot of scoring housing there than by staying in one of Dallas' many shelters. When the city installed dumpsters and portable toilets last fall, there were a few dozen tents. As of last Wednesday, when the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance and CitySquare conducted its weekly count, there were 251.
Even before Tuesday's murder, frustration with Tent City and the city's laissez faire approach to it was building in South Dallas and the Cedars. "To me, I think it's failed," Councilmember Adam Medrano said of the city's dumpsters-and-housing strategy at a public safety committee meeting last week. "And I knew it was going to fail at the beginning."

Tiffinni Young joined Medrano's call for the city to take serious steps to get rid of Tent City. "Our residents live blocks away from there, they have to live with this," she said. "It is not fair." At the public safety committee meeting, Young said TxDOT had agreed to put up no-trespassing signs, but those have yet to appear.

Throw a murder into the mix, and Tent City's days appear numbered.
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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson