Chrissy Perez wrestles with an American flag in the middle of a woods that borders a middle-class neighborhood in Denton. She’s been struggling with it for several minutes, trying to position it in front of her tent encampment, one that is not filled with trash like some of the other homeless encampments across Denton.
Dozens of tattoos cover the 33-year-old veteran’s body, and they hold meaning. The raven on her arm and the word “Raven” across her neck are symbols of her love for her wife, Raven, before their love fell apart after she returned home from the Iraq war several years ago. A tattoo of combat boots, a soldier’s helmet and a rifle on her left leg reminds her of her service and the life that was lost when her comrade, Spc. Kenneth Harris, died in a truck accident while sitting right next to her.
“Really, I just can’t get anybody to understand what I went through over there,” she says. “You feel like you’re more alone because you just can’t seem to ... you just can’t connect with anybody.”
Saddled with the moniker “Tattoo Girl” by the homeless population in Denton, Perez has been moving her tent to different locations around the city, trying to stay one step ahead of police who’ve been hot on her trail since she first hit the streets six months ago. A former soldier who served 12 years in the Army, she now belongs to a swelling homeless population, many of whom are migrating from places like Dallas and Fort Worth. She’s also one of more than 46,000 veterans seeking refuge on the streets, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
Lt. Frank Padgett, Denton police liaison to the Denton County Homeless Coalition's steering committee, says he's noticed an increase of homeless people not only arriving in Denton but also living in tents instead of shelters. The homeless, he says, have a network set up that's sending word that Denton is the place to come because it is "a friendly city."
"In my opinion, the community needs to come up with — and is coming up with — how we are going to handle our homeless issues," he says. "There are a myriad of problems and a plethora of answers. Speaking with the homeless and finding out which ones want help and which ones don't is a start."
Living on the streets is what led Perez to seek out a reporter. She was tired of the homeless stereotype that appears in newspapers and on TV. She wants to show that not all street people suffer from drug addiction or mental illness, and not all of them live in filth like some of the other encampments police have been raiding.
“I understand now that I’ve been homeless,” she says. “I believe that it takes going through something in order to get through. I feel like this is another step, another journey in my life.”
Several tents, one red and the others blue, sit atop several pallets like an old frame house. She sleeps in one tent, and her homeless 49-year-old protégé, Mark, sleeps in the other. She uses the other two tents to store bike parts, dirty laundry and other odds and ends needed to survive in the wilderness. She set the tents on plywood pallets and an old tabletop to help protect their encampment from the spring rain looming on the horizon. She dug trenches underneath the wood so rain water won’t pool underneath the tents.
She moved to the forest on the edge of the middle-class neighborhood about a month ago. Mark needed someone to teach him how to live homeless. He’d recently landed on the streets and sought shelter behind the fairgrounds in Denton until the police forced him to leave. “She’s the only one who was there for me,” he says.
Perez sought refuge on the streets because she didn’t want to sign a new lease on her apartment. She was contemplating moving back to Tennessee, where she grew up, but she couldn’t make up her mind.
Living on the streets hasn’t been easy, either. She’s been to hauled to jail on several different occasions and hit by a car while riding her bike, She says she spent three days in ICU and five days in the hospital. She’s slept under bridges, sought refuge in a park bathroom in the middle of a rainstorm and lived in several different tent encampments across the city before she struck out on her own.
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Her passion for custom-building bikes introduced her to the homeless community. In Denton, many homeless are provided bikes to navigate the city, and she can often be found peddling down the side of the road to grab a shower at a local outreach organization, a bite to eat, or simply visit friends.
Many homeless people she’s met are veterans like herself who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and other ailments like addiction or poverty. She was part of the 1.4 million veterans who are currently at-risk for becoming homeless because of these ailments.
“I’ve had a lot of unfortunate events that have occurred as a result of being a combat veteran and going over to Iraq twice,” she says. “As soon as I moved her to Texas, my mom committed suicide. Before that I had a guy blow up in my truck in Iraq.”
Perez joined the military when she was 17 years old. She was a tomboy growing up, loved nature, new experiences and a challenge. She became a truck driver in the Army and shipped to Iraq in 2003. She served two tours of duty. “It’s a war zone 24/7, locked and loaded,” she says. “Real life, you know, action. It’s definitely hard to adjust. I don’t care if it’s five or 10 years. The way of life is never going to be the same.”