Bridget Turner emerges from her tent and shuffles slowly but purposefully across Tent City's southernmost section. She's halfway across the sandy dirt when she stops short and looks around, face scrunched up in bewilderment.
Lee Cadena, a street preacher who moved to Tent City two and a half months ago to minister to its residents, has just fired up the grill. His wife, Diana, is arranging the restaurant-size tubs of ketchup and mustard just so on a folding table by their tent. "They took the bathroom," Diana informs Turner, who has wandered over.
"Wake up and no toilet! Man..." Turner mutters in disbelief. "That don't make no sense."
And so the closure of Tent City begins.
Last Wednesday, when the City Council convened to discuss the future of the homeless encampment that sprawls for nearly half a mile beneath Interstate 45, the meeting ended in uncertainty once it became clear that officials had no plan — not one that had been written down, anyways — detailing exactly how Tent City would be closed or where its residents would go following the scheduled May 4 clear-out.
But Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance President Cindy Crain, who came in for a tongue-lashing from the council for allowing Tent City to mushroom from a few dozen people last summer to around 300 at its peak in February despite assurances that the situation was under control (Adam Medrano referred to her acerbically as "so-called expert Cindy Crain"), began drafting a plan as soon as she returned to her office and presented it to city leaders during a meeting on Monday.
The closure will take place in phases beginning next week. First up is the southernmost and most lightly populated segment, which officials have designated as Sector A, where Turner and the Cadenas live. Someone from the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance showed up on Monday to inform residents of the imminent closure, though Turner and many others didn't learn the news until they were confronted with the missing toilet. No trespassing signs will be posted soon. Those who are still beneath the bridge next week — Tuesday or maybe Wednesday was what the Cadenas were told — will face arrest.
Next up for closure is the northernmost segment, which officials have dubbed Sector E but which Tent City residents sometimes refer to as Ice Mountain, on account of the free-flowing meth.
Turner finds the order of removal unjust. Other sections are crowded and unruly, but Sector A is open and relatively peaceful. The inhabitants here are much less of an affront to the city than the ones in Sector E. "They got a candy shop down there and everything!" she marvels.
This corner of camp is sparser than it was. There's a shade over a dozen tents here now compared with what Lee Cardenas guesses was twice that number a few weeks ago. The overall population of Tent City is down as well, hitting 204 on MDHA's most recent count. "People are disappearing," says Councilman Scott Griggs, who chairs the council's housing committee and has worked closely with Crain on developing the plan for Tent City.
Many of the vanished Tent City residents have disappeared into housing. The February 16 murder of Clifford Murray enlivened previously sluggish outreach efforts. Tent City residents who before the murder had shrugged when asked about housing, recalling hazily that they'd met with someone or been put on a waiting list weeks or months before, now report having had recent contact with case managers. Some even have housing lined up.
Paul Darrow, a homeless mechanic and star in an upcoming French documentary about inequality in Dallas, spent months fruitlessly searching for a landlord to accept his housing voucher. Now, he has a move-in date: April 16. His neighbor Ron, who was lounging on a recliner on Tuesday morning waiting for the nearby liquor store to open at 10 a.m., says he'd lined up a space in supportive housing through MetroCare, the county-run mental health agency.
Still, matriculation into housing remains at a trickle, far below what it would need to be to make more than a modest dent in the Tent City population. Crain told the council last week that she expects 150 people to be without housing when it closes on May 4. There had been talk of using vacant county or state property as temporary shelter, with the shuttered Dawson State Jail on Riverfront Boulevard as perhaps the most obvious site, but Crain says those discussions have so far come to naught. Instead, Crain says that Dallas' existing shelters — Salvation Army, Union Gospel Mission, Austin Street, Dallas Life — are adding enough capacity to absorb those who stay behind in Tent City.
But that presents a conundrum. The people living beneath I-45 — and particularly those who are likely to still be around on May 4 — generally have a dim view of shelter life; it's a big reason they're camping beneath a freeway. A Tent City resident with jaundiced eyes summed up the sentiment as he lugged a trash bag full of aluminum cans down Hickory Street on Tuesday morning: "Man, fuck the shelters."
Turner said she can't go to the shelters because she has lupus. One man said he planned to move in with his brother in Arlington. Another said he was having trouble thinking of an answer but that buying him a beer "might unstick my brain." A third shrugged as he poured gas into a weed trimmer. "I'll move," he said vaguely. He shouldered the trimmer and mounted a bicycle, riding away unsteadily. His puppy tried to follow but was stopped by a tether tied to a laden shopping cart. He pulled at the rope, yipping forlornly.
Crain says representatives from the shelters will be visiting Tent City to try to convince stragglers that shelter life isn't as awful as its reputation. Beyond that, it's a matter of building a robust system of street outreach and following up time and again with those who disperse in hopes that, one day, they can be talked into services.
The time for dithering is over. The May 4 date isn't going to budge. It's amazing, Crain says, what humans can push themselves to do when there's a deadline.
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