Adam P. Smith stumbled into Tent City 10 months ago, soaking wet and shivering. He'd recently been released from federal prison, where he'd spent a couple of years after being picked up after a pair of ill-conceived bank robberies. (He likes to tell of how his defense attorney jiu jitsued prosecutors' description of him. "He's not a career criminal. He's career pitiful.") He wound up tent-less in the homeless encampment on the northern border of Dallas Heritage Village. The fire ants were bearable, but a drenching rain drove him beneath Interstate 45, where he'd heard a homeless camp was taking root.
There, he met Darlene and her Chihuahua mix, Boo Boo, who welcomed him, ushered him to the fire and gave him a spare tent. Since then, Tent City has never failed to provide.
"Within 48 hours, I'd gotten laid, gotten drunk, gotten sober, gotten laid again," Smith recalls wistfully as he watches a haz-mat team clear out Tent City's final two sections on Tuesday morning. He's been sleeping a few blocks away, at Austin Street Center, for the past couple of weeks, but when he's on his own during the day, he's inevitably drawn back to Tent City. "It's been my clothes closet, my food pantry. It's been my loan shark and my pub." More than that, it's been home, and now it's being cleared away.
Tent City's removal has been in the cards since mid-February. For months, city officials and homeless service providers made tepid outreach efforts while the population beneath I-45 swelled from a few dozen last summer to a peak of about 300, but the February 16 murder of 51-year-old Clifford Murray, the second Tent City killing of the year, turned Tent City into an urgent political issue.
The city cleared and secured Sector A, the southernmost of Tent City's five sections, two weeks ago. The northernmost section, Sector E, which spilled up to the Interstate 30 service road, was shut down a week later. Sector D, the next one south, was closed off Friday. The last two, Sectors B and C, came down Tuesday.
The final sections close with little drama. Residents matter-of-factly dismantle their tents and stuff their belongings into trash bags that they load into shopping carts and push to the curb. Anything left behind when the city put up its barricades will be thrown away. SoupMobile is handing out hot chocolate and Kit Kats, which are popular, and offering free rides to homeless shelters, which are not. The 75 or so residents who remain in Tent City until the end don't suddenly warm to shelters. "Fuck the shelters," says one man, echoing a familiar refrain. "They treat kids like grown-ups and grown-ups like kids."
The residents are urged along by Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance leader Cindy Crain, who wears a purple MDHA T-shirt and protective gloves. Crain has been lambasted for not doing enough as Tent City's population exploded, something she's admitted to, but on Tuesday she was in her element. She was a blur as she crisscrossed Sector B, helping pack or take down tents or ferry belongings to the curb, all with her usual frenetic peppiness.
"Are you sure you don't need your printer?" she kids one resident who has indeed abandoned a printer in the dirt where his tent used to be. Later, she dons someone's oversized sombrero as she walks briskly to the curb.
Crain is joined by a handful of other decision-making types — the city's housing director, Bernadette Mitchell, is there, as is chief spokeswoman Sana Syed. CitySquare's Larry James, whose office is two blocks away, strolls through, as does Sam Merten, chief operating officer of The Bridge. They were decidedly less hands-on than Crain.
The 8 a.m. closure deadline comes and goes, allowing stragglers time to gather. At about 8:15 a.m., there's a slight buzz from close to Hickory Street. Lee and Diana Cadenas, the preacher couple who moved into Tent City three months ago to minister to and barbecue for the homeless, have chained themselves to a concrete pillar. They hold signs: "Homeless not Hopeless"; "If You Close Tent City Close the I-45 Freeway Too"; "Love Doesn't Leave Someone on a Sidewalk."
"If we don't stand here now, it's just going to keep happening over and over," Cadena explains. They are even willing to face arrest — "If it comes to that," Cadena says.
Crain, who is helping take down a tent a couple of dozen yards away, rolls her eyes when she sees the swarm of cameras. "She told me they were gonna do that last night, and y'all [the media] fell for it," she says with a dismissive chuckle. She wonders why the media don't focus on people who have been placed in housing, like the tall gentleman whose stuff is being loaded into the back of a Dallas County Health and Human Services pickup.
He gives his name as Robert. He's been in Tent City for months. CitySquare got him into an apartment on Malcolm X Boulevard in South Dallas. "Not too far at all," he agrees. He squeezes into the back of the pickup beside his stuff, but the truck doesn't make it far. Lisa Blouin, a caseworker with the city of Dallas stops the driver. She squeezes Robert's shoulder, grinning from ear to ear. "Take care," she says.
Robert, however, is in the minority. Most of the departing residents have not found permanent housing. Some say they'll give the shelters another shot. Others just shrug. Several say they'll go to "Old Tent City," which is a bit further south along I-45.
The Cadenas are still there when Crain makes a final sweep through the camp, clearing out the handful of reporters and photographers surveying the massive amount of junk scattered across the depopulated expanse of Sector C. Once everyone has been shepherded to the sidewalk along Hickory Street, a city work crew swings shut a chain-link gate and drags a traffic barricade into place, just in case the fence's curlicue of razor wire didn't convey the message.
A man in a delivery uniform walks up and peers through the fence at the Cadenas. "This is some crazy shit," he mutters. He's trying to deliver a load of baked goods to the produce house next door to Tent City but can't back his 18-wheeler into the dock due to the cars that are clogging the street. He's frustrated at the interruption to his delivery schedule and wishes the city would've considered clearing Tent City out on the weekend, but on some level he clearly appreciates the spectacle.
(The Cadenas, for what it's worth, will remain chained to the pillar until 11:15 a.m., when negotiations with a besuited Dallas police officer reach a peaceful resolution. They agree to leave on the condition that that the TV news reporters who have been shunted outside the fence be readmitted so they can give additional interviews.)
A few feet away, Smith has found Darlene. They clutch each other, sobbing. Boo Boo stands at Darlene's feet, plump and watchful. They compose themselves. Smith is preparing to make one final run to the liquor store up the block at Hickory and Good Latimer, for old time's sake. Darlene sits, with a plastic 40-ounce bottle of Colt 45 cradled between her legs.
"Jesus had his last supper," she said. "I'm having my last beer at Tent City."
A half mile south of Tent City on I-45, just north of Grand Avenue, sit a few dozen towering stacks of precast concrete, leftovers or preorders from some highway project or other. A handful of people have been camping there for months. One couple has made a cozy little fortress, draping an impressive number of shopping carts with blankets and arranging them in a half-circle against the concrete. A plush dolphin and a pair of green fists stand sentry atop one of the shorter stacks of concrete.
They are separated from Tent City by a DART maintenance track, a couple of semi-busy roads, and several empty sections of freeway underpass. As a result, they've been able to carve out what they describe as a rather peaceful existence.
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That began to change when the city began shutting down Tent City. Suddenly, tents began appearing in the open section just beyond the stacks of concrete. Someone pitched one next to an adjacent stack of concrete, practically in their backyard. With the newcomers came fires and drugs, sometimes mixed together. The other night, the couple recalled, a man got so high that he fell into the fire with a pipe still in his mouth. Last night, they awoke to a couple having sex in the open a few feet outside their protective ring of shopping carts.
The neighborhood, a block away from Billy Earl Dade Middle School's athletic fields, is going to seed, and fast. Already, the couple has made plans to move by the end of the month.
Like that, Old Tent City, a lightly inhabited camp behind SoupMobile's little white church, has become New Tent City, the sprawling, unruly offspring of the encampment the city's just spent two weeks shutting down. It's not as big, certainly, but it's still large. By 10 a.m. on Tuesday morning, there were close to 70 tents. There was evidence that metal fence posts had recently been installed, but the fencing itself hasn't yet been in place.
Smith found his way to the new Tent City after his beer run. So did Darlene and Boo Boo. At midday, Tent City exiles were still trickling in. Tent City is like a colony of mushrooms, Smith muses. Clear it away and the spores take to the wind.