On Tuesday morning, three police cruisers shepherded two trucks through the empty streets of South Dallas. Every few blocks, the caravan stopped in front of a homeless encampment and a small army of men in white coveralls jumped out to clear it away.
Tommy Renfrow, who had pitched his tent on a small strip of land beside Interstate 30, said he had only a few minutes to choose what to save. He grabbed his lime green sleeping bag and a few bags of clothes. His tent, he said, was tossed into the truck.
“I don’t have any place to stay now,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” He spent the night in a nearby homeless shelter.
These weekly “homeless encampment resolutions” are a recent effort by the city to respond to complaints and offer help to the camps’ homeless residents. But the euphemistic name hides a grim truth: The raids — one more trauma for people on the streets to endure — do not eliminate the encampments, and few of the people who live in them accept the city’s offer of assistance.
Renfrow, interviewed by the Observer the night before the raid, said he was unaware of plans to clear the encampment. He said he’d been on the streets for six months and relies on government aid. He had been laid off from his job making aircraft parts in Grand Prairie and lost his home to foreclosure.
The morning of the raid, police officers stopped a reporter from entering the encampment where Renfrow had set up his tent. By that afternoon, only squares of dead grass remained.
Monica Hardman, the director of the city’s Office of Homeless Solutions, wrote in an email that the city provides “a minimum notice of 72 hours” and that people have “ample time to secure their personal belongings before items are discarded as litter/debris.”
That office is only a few years old and during that time, the city has sped up its process for handling complaints about the camps. As a result of a “new cleanup and reclamation process,” the city needed only 19 days to “resolve” a homeless encampment in September, two days faster than the city’s goal.
The city spends $800,000 a year on the program.
But in many of the South Dallas encampments cleared Tuesday, tents popped back up against almost immediately.
For Isaac Johnson, the raids are a fact of life. “Once a month,” he said with resignation. He was sitting in his tent along with a half-dozen others underneath a no-trespassing sign on Jeffries Street. The land is owned by a Boston-based telecommunications company, according to a search and seizure warrant stapled to a stake by code enforcement officers.
After being served the warrant, Johnson and other members of the encampment packed up their belongings and wheeled them in shopping carts around the corner. When the cleanup crews left, Johnson returned.
“When they leave, we wait and then just sneak out and put it back,” said Lois Campbell, a resident of a nearby encampment. She chuckled.
Like many others on the streets, Johnson is a drug addict, he said, and has been in and out of shelters and subsidized housing programs for decades.
“The way I look at it, it’s a revolving door,” he said.
David Woody, CEO of The Bridge, the shelter and recovery center built with much fanfare in 2008 as a response to the city’s growing homelessness crisis, compared the city’s cleanup strategy with squeezing a balloon. “It just pops out elsewhere,” he said.
The city would be better off devoting more resources toward engagement staff on the street. “They need to be immersed in contact with people standing on street corners and identifying who is truly a panhandler and who is homeless,” Woody said.
City Council member Adam Bazaldua, whose district covers South Dallas, called the program a “helpful initiative” and said cleaning up the encampments is necessary to maintain public health. But he said the city should spend more money attacking the underlying problems.
“We need to be putting more into services that help break the cycle,” he said.
Nearly 1,500 people live on the streets in Dallas, according to this year’s count by the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance. Thousands more are in homeless shelters.
Austin Street Center, which is around the corner from Johnson’s tent, is nearly always full. The city recently repurposed the convention center as an emergency shelter on particularly cold days.
But Dallas has received praise for its handling of homeless encampments. Gov. Greg Abott applauded the city’s ability to “retain public health & safety,” saying he saw no homeless people during a tour of downtown in October.
And in May 2017, shortly after the city’s Office of Homeless Solutions began operating, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness offered Dallas as a case study in how to handle homeless encampments. The report focused on the city’s efforts to connect the encampments’ residents to social services.
“The primary goal is to connect people to appropriate housing and services, not to move them to another unsheltered location,” reads the report.
Back then, the city was partnering with the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance to “identify shelter or permanent housing for at least half of encampment residents before a cleanup began.”
But on Tuesday in South Dallas, only three of the 21 people city officials encountered had accepted help and were taken to an emergency shelter, according to data given to Bazaldua by the Office of Homeless Solutions.
On Thursday morning, Renfrow was hanging out on the sidewalk across the street from his old encampment. Over the last two days, more tents had sprung up in his place.
Renfrow still hadn’t found a new tent, but he was in good spirits. He’d spent the night at Austin Street, and he said he had a job installing solar panels lined up for Monday.
But others weren’t doing so well. Renfrow’s former neighbor, Sylvia Kroska, hadn’t gone to the shelter. She said she avoided it because of the “fighting and chaos.”
“We just slept on the concrete,” she said.
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