North Texas Daily

Following months of debate, city officials in Dallas close ‘tent city’

Following months of debate, city officials in Dallas close ‘tent city’

May 05
02:53 2016

Dalton LaFerney | News Editor

@daltonlaferney

There used to be a neighborhood here, but now nobody is allowed in or out. There were no back porches to light a fire. No doorbells for dogs to bark at. Green yards were not trimmed to perfection. No picketed fences or flower gardens. There were only tents, dirty mattresses, loose pages and garbage, concrete pillars holding up a highway and people who didn’t have anywhere else to go.

Over the last few months, the neighborhood underneath the Interstate 45 bridge outside Deep Ellum in Dallas was erased as fast as the cars driving above. A series of policy decisions and deaths led to the eviction of hundreds.

“We are not the only city facing these issues,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said at the annual State of the Homeless address in March. “The gap between the haves and have-nots has never been greater. And the have-nots that have nothing continues to grow.”

It is unclear where the residents will live now, though some reserved “tiny homes” and spots in shelters. It is likely many will trickle into other homeless camps, because tent city is not the only neighborhood of its kind in the United States — or in Dallas, for that matter. Already on Wednesday, news outlets reported new camps were popping up near tent city.

Tents are lined up under the Dallas bridge, the community known as Tent City must vacate the area by May 4, 2016. Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

Tents are lined up under the Dallas bridge, the community known as Tent City must vacate the area by May 4, 2016. Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

The necessity to find a solution for the city’s homeless population is growing evermore urgent. In an annual report, the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance said there was a 26 per-cent rise in the city’s homeless population from 2015 when MDHA counted about 3,141 people who were homeless. By 2016, the population grew to about 3,904.

“This is not only a human issue, this is a city policy issue,” Rawlings said. “Those individuals that have nothing and are on the streets [are] a constant reminder that we have not figured this out.”

Search “tent city, Dallas” in the Maps app. You’ll find where the neighborhood used to be. Leave Denton, head down I-35, make your way past Dallas and find Louise Avenue, Dawson Street or Hickory Street. In that area, go toward the interstate.

The old buildings that line the side streets begin to break up the sunlight, guiding you toward this abandoned neighborhood. The sound of the cars passing on I-45 grows as you walk closer. You hear the slaps of tires rolling over potholes. Through a chain-link fence, a dark space sticks out, where about 300 people laid their heads.

Among the puddles of piss, burn piles, bags and fast-food boxes littering the ground, you meet people like J.D. On a Saturday in April, J.D. wore a brown Red Label cap and spoke about the Bible, poor people and rich people. The first stop in J.D.’s journey was at chap-ter nine of the book of Matthew in the Holy Bible. From behind his eyes, which looked filled with yellow snot, J.D. shuffled to verse 15, back to 28, and stopped at 25.

In that part of Matthew, readers learn about Jesus Christ’s work healing a paralyzed man, a sick woman and raising a woman from the dead.

“Jesus turned and saw her,” reads Matthew 9:22. “‘Take heart, daughter,’ Jesus said, ‘your father has healed you.’ And the woman was healed at that moment.”

Tents sit under the Dallas highway, the soon to be shut down homeless community has fewer tents each day as police escort them out of the area. Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

Tents sit under the Dallas highway, the soon to be shut down homeless community has fewer tents each day as police escort them out of the area. Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

J.D. didn’t want to be quoted in the newspaper, he said. When it was still open, tent city was home to several people like J.D., who were uneasy about sharing their tent city stories. Some people shied away from the camera, others rebuked it.

In the weeks leading up to the May 4 closure, there were more tripods than tent stakes in the ground. And one man, who did not offer his name and wanted money for a bus ticket before he’d approve his photo taken, noticed the distance a passerby put between them.

“You nervous?” the man who said he was from Longview, Texas, asked. “Sit down.”

Like J.D., this man talked about Christianity, except he didn’t quote Scripture. He only asked, “What do you see?”

Beneath the bridge were candy wrappers, old brown bags, waterlogged sleeping bags, tents and bicycles; cars parked alongside the fences, people smoking cigarettes and talking in circles. A small dog walked around a cluster of tents. A woman fed pigeons from her green car, packed with clothes, books, DVDs and fast food bags. Clutter beneath the interstate. Families visited grandparents. It was quiet aside from the traffic above.

Orange and yellow spray-painted construction marks reminded people beneath the interstate that there were plans and movement all around them, but the only option for them was to move out.

Weeks later, it was made clear what the man from Longview was asking, because upon returning, there were far fewer residents living in the tent city neighborhood.

“I don’t care if someone said, ‘I want to live under this bridge,’ that is not acceptable in Dallas, Texas,” Rawlings said in March.

People underneath the bridge said Dallas police and social workers had been sweeping the area, telling residents to break camp.

On a recent Saturday, two Dallas officers sat in their cruiser, a Dodge Charger marked 0187. In the passenger seat, officer J. Kaup. The driver, officer D. Brintwell. Both on their smartphones.

“We’re protecting those construction workers,” Kaup said, pointing to a crew clearing an area of tent city. “We don’t recommend you go in there.”

A homeless women parked under the Tent City bridge, feds pigeons some bread crumbs. Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

A homeless women parked under the Tent City bridge, feds pigeons some bread crumbs. Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

Their presence here was a clear reminder of the dangers that come with living under a bridge. Some residents, surrounded by muddy ruts, metal hangers, broken down bikes, sleeping bags and condoms, huddled to talk about the police. Their eyes were like movie screens, replaying the moments the police were there for: to arrest for drugs, to protect from violence and to send people packing.

Two deaths in the neighborhood compounded the grief city leaders had of tent city. In January, police said 50-year-old Dana Hunter was found dead — probably a homicide victim, they said. About a month later, an unnamed man was stabbed to death. In 2014, there were two other reported deaths in the neighborhood.

Tent city resident Leroy Mitchell saw the man killed in February, and remembered his body lying in the dirtiness beneath the interstate. Mitchell knew the man, he said.

Police reports indicate a 54-year-old man named Bennie Valentine killed the man.

“I cut him,” the police affidavit quotes Valentine as saying. Mitchell corroborated the police report. He remembers one stick to the neck, another down his abdomen and once in the leg.

On a Saturday afternoon in April, Mitchell wore a referee shirt and small gold chain. On his head, a Chicago Blackhawks hat. The tag was still on it, and on the tag was a white paint splotch. He wore gold-black checker shoes. He walked with a black cane. On his arm there’s a medical bracelet from Baylor University Medical Center, No. 61901266. He said his face was beat in during a home invasion, and he had reconstructive surgery to fix it.

That Saturday in April, Mitchell was homeless.

Lee Roy Michael cries as he recalls witnessing his friend’s murder several months ago. Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

Lee Roy Michael cries as he recalls witnessing his friend’s murder several months ago. Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

Born in 1948, Mitchell joins about 11 percent of other homeless people in Dallas who are unsheltered over the age of 62. Mitchell is one of 440 men living on the street, according to the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance’s annual State of the Homeless report.

He talked about the man who was stabbed. He remembers the look in the man’s eye as he said he watched his guts slosh from his stomach. It was steps away from Mitchell’s tent. He flopped on the ground and made it about 20 feet away to die.

Before the neighborhood was closed, a pile of bricks marked the spot where the man died, a makeshift grave stone.

“Have you ever felt hopeless?” he asked. “Try all you can, and nothing.”

He began to cry. He lit his Marlboro cigarette. He started talking about his career as a truck driver, hauling freight across the country. Just before tent city closed for good, he talked about returning to Minnesota, to get away from the streets of Dallas.

“Texas ain’t for me,” he said. “Y’all can have it.”

Featured Image: Lee Roy Michael, a resident in Dallas’ homeless community Tent City, talks about moving to Minnesota in pursuit of a better living situation. Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer 

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