Tanya Ragan made her first foray into Downtown Dallas' neglected southeastern corner in 2007 when she bought a piece of commercial property there. The Bridge, the city-funded homeless shelter, opened in 2008. In the seven years since, Ragan, who lives in a town home near the Farmer's Market, has established herself as perhaps the loudest opponent of Dallas' long-standing strategy of clustering homeless services in her downtrodden but revitalizing neighborhood. She can barely remember all the times she and her neighbors have helped kill permanent-supportive-housing projects near The Bridge, though she knows that there were four of them. (A fifth, for Family Gateway, had neighbors' support.) Her outspokenness has led to frequent accusations that she's anti-homeless, but she insists she's not. Ragan wants the homeless to get the proper food, shelter and mental health treatment they need; she just thinks those services should be more spread-out and moved elsewhere. She's experienced enough vandalism, trespassing, hyper-aggressive panhandling, public urination/defecation and other quality-of-life issues that she doesn't think such a highly concentrated homeless population can coexist with a revitalized downtown.
In some ways, Ragan says, things in her corner of downtown have improved. The city and police have grown more responsive to the concerns of residents and business owners as the area has continued to develop and now conduct routine morning sweeps to roust those caught sleeping in public. The Farmer's Market, removed from city mismanagement and privatized, is thriving. Neighborhood groups in the area are active and growing in clout. But tension with the homeless hasn't gone away. In fact, judging by the recent Downtown Dallas Inc. letter urging increased police presence downtown and the City Council discussion a few days later, it's having something of a moment. And Ragan, naturally, is right there in the mix.
Earlier this month, Ragan put out a call to arms urging her fellow downtown residents to document encounters with overly aggressive panhandlers and share their photos and videos on social media. "With the panhandling, it's just become so rampant, it's just so aggressive," Ragan says. She kicked things off:
Ragan's downtown neighbors picked up the thread, snapping videos and photos not only of panhandlers but of people sleeping in cars and on sidewalks and the tent cities that have popped up under Interstate 45, among other places.
And so on. Now, a social-media gripe campaign, particularly one contained mostly within Dallas' relatively small subculture of downtown dwellers, might not seem the most novel or effective way to bring about change, but it quickly gained the attention of semi-important Dallas figures, like a current Park Board member:
And then a really important Dallas figures, i.e. a certain non-corporeal pundit phantom:
And then City Council member Adam Medrano took it upon himself to personally visit various downtown 7-Elevens to tweet the panhandling for himself:
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One prong of the campaign is focused at the city. Panhandling in and around downtown is prohibited by city code, but the statute isn't aggressively enforced. The second prong is aimed at 7-Eleven, where the panhandlers tend to be the most visible and aggressive. The only way to "break the habit," Ragan says, is to promptly and consistently chase them off. "A perfect example is the Farmer's Market;" she says. "We had spots with 20, 25 people who would come here every day." Ragan and neighbors put up no-trespassing signs and began calling the cops any time homeless people would show up at a spot. It took a few days, but eventually the group moved elsewhere. The same approach rid a building she purchased near Dealey Plaza of its resident panhandler.
Medrano says he has been working for the past year-and-a-half to address homeless-related quality-of-life issues in downtown neighborhoods. His initial focus was on finding a centralized location, easily watched over by police and code enforcement, where groups can distribute food to the homeless, as they currently do this in various places and invariably leave behind trash and litter. That work is ongoing, as he says his suggestion to host feedings on the plaza in front of City Hall received a chilly response from City Manager A.C. Gonzalez. Medrano also regularly does foot patrols in his district, walking with neighbors to identify problem spots that need to be dealt with by police or code enforcers. His participation in the nascent #enforce campaign was an outgrowth of that. "With Deep Ellum coming back, a lot of great things going on in Farmers Market, panhandling has increased," Medrano says. "I was just trying to get people to enforce" the anti-panhandling ordinance. In addition to the lack of a 24/7 police presence downtown, "I think also a lot of the officers might not want to do it because of what happened to Jesus Martinez," he says, referencing the Deep Ellum officer fired for improperly restraining a homeless man.
Medrano says he's optimistic that things will improve. Last week, DPD Chief David Brown tweeted that "We are on it," a reference, Ragan and Medrano say, to the addition of an overnight shift for the downtown police squad that's been promised for January. 7-Eleven, which did not respond to a request for comment on Friday, has been somewhat less responsive, sending out a survey and occasional boilerplate email responses to residents demands that the convenience store chain more aggressively enforce anti-loitering/panhandling rules at its downtown stores, hire security guards, and stop selling malt liquor.