Outside a tent at the embattled Dallas homeless encampment known as Camp Rhonda, the wind blew ash and smoke from a small firepit into Michael Lavelle Amphy's face. The air was thick with the smell of dying flames.
It was Amphy's last day at the camp near Interstate 45 and Ferris Street, as it was for the rest of the homeless residents. They packed their belongings, stuffing whatever they wanted to take with them into black trash bags and moving boxes.
Some were leaving with Ryan Ahmadian, co-founder of the Dallas Houseless Committee and a member of Dallas Stops Evictions. They'd head to a hotel for two weeks, which is paid for with funds raised by activists. Feed the People, another activist group, raised nearly $200,000 to help those affected by last week’s winter storms. Ahmadian said they paid $30,000 for more than 20 rooms.
The others would be leaving with Johnny Aguinaga, the property owner and candidate for City Council’s District 4, to an undisclosed location, one of his other properties where they can set up a camp like Rhonda. Aguinaga has said that, if elected, homelessness in South Oak Cliff would cease to exist.
Ahmadian said he was told he wouldn't be allowed to provide resources to people at the new camp.
Over the weekend, Aguinaga announced that the properties housing Camp Rhonda, and a smaller one named Camp Joy, would be shut down. This came after Dallas code compliance staff warned Aguinaga his land was being used illegally by allowing homeless people to camp there. The city threatened to fine him up to $2,000 a day if he didn’t shut it down.
He said a day before the storm, code compliance staff told him they were shutting down the camp. “After the storm, right around the 24th, we’ve gotta move around," he recalled telling the camp residents. "We’ve just gotta relocate."
In a statement emailed to the Observer, a city spokesperson said, “Code Compliance educates property owners on what they need to do to comply with city code for the health and safety of all.”
The way Aguinaga sees it, the media coverage got too hot and the other activists stepped on too many toes at City Hall. “We’re just getting away from the spotlight," he said.
While the other activists want to keep fighting the city, he said, "I don’t want none of that."
Aguinaga says he's the one risking a $2,000 daily fine. "I didn't raise funds," he said. "But I'm doing it out of the will of God. I'm the only one taking the liability all the way."
He said he would rather relocate and use the cash the city would have fined him to pay for food and water for camp residents.
Amphy was going with Ahmadian and said he’d begun to have looming doubts about Aguinaga’s intentions.
“I believe in giving the man a fair chance, but I also have to think about my welfare, my safety,” Amphy said. “Anytime the temperature gets low, in one digit, that’s dangerous. You can close your eyes and not wake up again. My doctor told me my heart was too bad [to wait] for the weather to pass.”
Still, Amphy said he felt that Aguinaga would rather he sleep at the camp when freezing temperatures roll through Dallas than go to a hotel. Aguinaga gave them firewood, but that doesn't compare to a warm room for a night, Amphy added.
Aguinaga has said he wants all of the residents at the camp to end up in permanent housing.
Amphy was one of the Camp Rhonda residents who the local nonprofit OurCalling got into a hotel before the recent freeze. The hotel ended up having problems with power, so he was moved to the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, where OurCalling had set up a temporary shelter. The convention center was eventually closed to the homeless, so Amphy trekked back to his tent at Camp Rhonda on Monday.
He said it’s because of organizations like OurCalling and the people who donated to all of the North Texas mutual aid funds that they survived the cold.
“We’ve got good people out here that is helping us. We’ve got some that are just like devils in sheep's clothing. They talk good and make everything seem all right, when all the time, they’re trying to choke you to death,” Amphy said. “I’m not saying Johnny’s that way. … I hope and pray that he’s real like he say he is cause I care for him. I really do.”
Charles Scott, another Camp Rhonda resident, said he hadn't decided who to go with. “I ain't gonna say I don’t want to be here,” Scott said. “I just don’t like the bullshit that goes on.”
He said he’s run into obstacles having to provide ID to get into a hotel. Additionally, he was apprehensive to go with Ahmadian because when the city offers up a spot in a shelter or hotel, there are too many restrictions.
“I don’t want to go nowhere no bullshit is, where you’re locked in the room, can’t go smoke a cigarette, can’t leave the property,” he said. “I don’t know if they have those type of rooms, but I wouldn’t want to be under those types of circumstances.”
The camp was birthed from encampment resolutions, or sweeps, that were taking place downtown. During the sweeps, people’s belongings, including identification cards, birth certificates and other important documents, were thrown away.
In normal circumstances, the city gives campers 72 hours advance notice to clear off of a property they've pitched tents on. After three days, a small army of people hired by the city would then arrive to get rid of any people or items left behind.
“As I raised these concerns publicly, the owner of the property reached out to me and gave us permission to set up on his property. Unfortunately, we have reached a point in time where we are no longer welcome and have been made to feel extremely unwanted,” Ahmadian said. “We are appreciative, but also feel betrayed and abandoned by the same person who claims to be a homeless advocate.”
Following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dallas has been cutting the homeless campers some slack. Per the CDC guidance, the Dallas Police Department, Office of Homeless Solutions and city-contracted vendors have temporarily suspended their anti-encampment efforts. The main focus now is ensuring these homeless populations don’t contract COVID-19.
Ahmadian and other activists put together a list of demands to dictate how the city handles its homeless populations. They want the Camp Rhonda and Joy properties to be rezoned as residential. They want fines for property owners letting the homeless camp on their land to be halted. They want all homeless encampments to be allowed to operate permanently and for the city to provide proper sanitation, including restrooms and hand washing stations, to all camps.
Wayne Walker, minister and founder of OurCalling, said he used to be the person who brought supplies to homeless encampments. However, he said he's since come to believe that taking people off the street is a better strategy to ending homelessness than giving people the means to be more comfortable on the street. Walker has also said, though, that there aren't enough shelters or affordable housing in the city to cure Dallas homelessness.
Until Dallas can meet this demand, activists like Ahmadian feel it is their job to fill in the gaps in service.
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