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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

Dallas wants to move homeless people from encampments into housing. But trust is in short supply

DOHS02c_Wells.jpg
Jacob Wells
/
KERA News
Barry Dyson oversees part of the Office of Homeless Solutions street outreach team.

Dismantling homeless encampments is a massive undertaking, especially if the goal is to help people leave homelessness behind.

On a sunny afternoon, nearly a dozen workers are schlepping up and down the steep, rocky ravine to remove trash and items left behind by the community of people who once lived here. It’s sweaty work, heaving huge black garbage bags onto the back of a truck.

Abandoned belongings pile up in the dirt at the top of the hill — books and board games, backpacks and clothes, coolers and plastic storage bins. A blue wheelchair printed with “E.R.” in red block letters sits on its side next to a pair of walkers, a pink bicycle, a big blue teddy bear, and a rusting shopping cart.

This encampment, among the trees and in the shelter of a nondescript bridge on Ledbetter Road, is now permanently closed. A city sign sternly warns that the site is monitored by the city. By the end of the day, it will be fenced off, making it difficult to get down to the area where a group of Dallas’ least fortunate residents once lived.

Dallas is increasingly focused on moving people out of encampments by finding them the right mix of housing and services to keep them stably housed. It’s fueled by unprecedented federal spending, and driven by a complex, coordinated strategy involving many players in homeless services. But on the streets, it’s not clear that the strategy has done much to undo deep mistrust of the city’s intentions when it comes to tackling homelessness.

Unprecedented spending

The cleanup on Ledbetter Road is the end stage of a decommissioning process Christine Crossley says is the gold standard for closing encampments.

For weeks before the cleanup began, Crossley’s Office of Homeless Solutions worked with nonprofits and other agencies to build rapport with the people who lived here, getting them into the region’s network of services for people experiencing homelessness, connecting them with caseworkers and lining up housing.

a blue teddy bear sits on the ground next to a dirty blue fleece blanket
Jacob Wells
/
KERA News
Among the belongings left behind when this encampment closed is a blue teddy bear.

“It's not taking someone that you met yesterday and sticking them in housing. It is taking someone that you have built a 4- to 6-week relationship with. You've worked on all of their barriers to housing. We make sure the housing type matches their need,” Crossley said.

In response to the pandemic, Congress and the Biden Administration unleashed unprecedented spending for local governments, including massive increases in federal funds to reduce homelessness. In the Dallas area, that’s fueling a coordinated, $72 million effort to house roughly half of the region’s homeless population by the fall of 2023.

But the pandemic also made the work harder. The share of people experiencing chronic homelessness in Dallas — meaning they’ve been homeless for at least a year over the past three years — nearly doubled to over 1,000 as off-ramps to homelessness were disrupted by COVID-19.

According to the most recent count, more than 4,000 people in Dallas County were experiencing homelessness, with about a quarter of them living on the street or in encampments. As part of the Dallas R.E.A.L. Time Rapid Rehousing initiative, the city has decommissioned nine encampments and put more than 100 people on the road to permanent housing.

Wayne Walker, who leads the nonprofit OurCalling, says the stakes of this work are literally life and death. People who do not have homes face greater levels of illness and die, on average, 12 years sooner than the general population, according to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. His organization’s workers do hundreds of encampment visits every year.

“We go to places where we find the most horrible tragedies. We find bodies. We find people that have been abused. We find people that are wounded…” Walker said. “We're finding people that are starving on the streets.”

Walker is often critical of the city’s approach to homelessness, frequently pointing out that more of its locally generated funds go to animal services than to helping homeless people. Still, Walker applauds the city for increasing funding for homeless services and a more coordinated strategy to get people off the streets, even if it’s not enough to meet the massive gap between resources and need.

“One way it's portrayed is the big mean city is closing these camps. But that's not what's happening. They're going there and offering these individual services. They're trying to get them housed. They're trying to get them on the coordinated access system or get them into shelters,” Walker said.

Not all encampments are closed through the decommissioning process, though. When confronted with an encampment where violence is observed or reported, or where criminal or drug-related activity are present, Crossley says immediate closure is the only option, even if it does nothing to reduce homelessness.

a sign posted on a telephone pole announces that an encampment has been closed. A fence is in front of the sign. A pile of debris is in the background.
Jacob Wells
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KERA News
The city fences off closed encampments to try to keep new people from moving in.

“There is this pain point that we have that says, okay, well, that option has been taken from us. We no longer have that choice. This is going to have to be cleared out. But that doesn't mean we have anywhere for you to go. We acknowledge that this just kicked the can down the road. It's not breaking the cycle, but to allow it to remain here is so violent that we just cannot do that,” she said.

The city’s hands are also tied when it comes to private property, Crossley said. If a private property owner wants to people stop camping on their land or squatting in their vacant building, the city is obligated to remove people.

In its latest budget, the city allocated $2.5 million to launch a new team focused on urgent situations involving people who are homeless. That includes breaking up encampments that have become dangerous.

Trust in short supply

There’s a lot of distrust that the city will have to overcome in its efforts. In interviews with several people who are currently or formerly houseless, every person expressed a deep skepticism about the city’s motives and its methods.

One man, who gave his name as Lonny and declined to give a last name, lives with a handful of other men in a row of tents under an overpass in central Dallas. He said the city’s efforts to help homeless people were insufficient, and often put people into housing that doesn’t work for them, so they end up back out on the street.

“They’re gone two weeks and they come back,” because they can’t get the services they need, or there are rules they don’t want to live with.

Lonny said he declined a housing offer in North Dallas because it was too far from friends and family. He’s hoping to get housing in West Dallas, he said.

Another man, Isaac, who stays in another encampment, said he was recently put up in a hotel paid for by a nonprofit, but the rules were too strict, so he left to rejoin his friends on the street.

His friend, who gave her name as Jane, says she and others have had their tents up for about a year in this spot under I-45. For the most part, the city will leave them alone as long as they keep the area around them clean, she said. But she knows the city can come any time to tell her to tear down the tents and leave.

“I get why they come. They get phone calls that it gets nasty, they have to do something,” she said. “We aren’t supposed to be here in the first place. We know that. OHS knows that. The cops, they know that.”

Bobby Hollingsworth, who until this year had experienced homelessness off and on for more than a decade, said encampments are misunderstood, even by some of the people hoping to help people who are homeless.

“Those encampments are not just a bunch of homeless people living together. It's a homeless family living together. There’s always one person out there who’s going to look out for everybody else,” Hollingsworth said. “And so I did everything in my power to keep my family together, so much so they call me the mayor.”

For Hollingsworth, who cites estrangement from his family as one of the factors that pushed him to live on the streets, the guys in his encampment were his “street family,” who bonded over being raised in Christian homes and a shared belief in God.

Frequent flashpoints come when city workers tell people to clear their belongings from an area so it can be cleaned.

This is a process where the city sends workers from the Office of Homeless Solutions along with a team of contractors who clean areas where complaints have been lodged by 3-1-1 or other means. They’re always accompanied by police.

Often, encampments will get set back up after the cleaning.

A man in a gray t-shirt sits on a couch looking to his side.
Christopher Connelly
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KERA News
“Those encampments are not just a bunch of homeless people living together. It's a homeless family living together," said Bobby Hollingsworth.

Hollingsworth says cleanings can be devastating. He lost family mementos, like his grandmother’s quilt. He has no photos of his deceased parents to put up in his new apartment because they were trashed in a cleaning. He’s known people who lost hearing aids, prosthetics and walkers. They lose cell phones and wallets. They lose the tents they sleep in, and their sleeping bags and clothes.

“When they come through and take everything, it takes the life out of people. You took everything for no reason,” he said.

Despite the city’s talk of wanting to find appropriate housing for people experiencing homelessness, Hollingsworth said he often felt the city just wanted people like him to go away.

“If you come and you throw away a man's food, clothing and shelter. What message are you giving that man? I don't want you to exist anymore,” he said.

City policy is to give at least five days’ notice before a cleaning to give people time to move out of the area. Hollingsworth says people often don’t get that notice.

Hollingsworth says people need a lot of help. They have complex legal problems. Trauma. Mental health and substance abuse issues. Some struggle to adapt to apartment living once they move inside. Many simply don’t like or trust the shelter system, and they’ve had bad experiences with the city before.

That’s what City of Dallas street outreach workers like Daniel Blow and Terri Mason are faced with when they go to work every day. They have to straddle a somewhat difficult line between building enough trust to connect people with the services they need, and delivering notice that their encampment must be moved so the city can clean.

Most days, Blow and Mason are sent out to respond to 3-1-1 service requests related to homelessness. They’ll ask the folks they meet whether they can arrange rides to the hospital, to shelters where they can get a bed for the night, or to nonprofits where they can do laundry, get online or get a warm meal. They can also get people set up to start the process of securing housing, the ultimate goal for the city’s Office of Homeless Solutions.

Blow says he doesn’t find a lot of willing takers — at least, not at first. A lot of people living on the streets have had bad experiences trying to get help before, so it often takes multiple conversations to build enough rapport until Blow is trusted enough to help.

“There’s always options out there they just don‘t know about. And you can’t really tell them about it because they’re still at that point where they’re hurt from the last instance. So it’s just a constant rapport until they get to the point where they can listen,” Blow said.

“Some of them are just angry, immediately angry, and refuse our services,” said Mason, which can be disappointing because she knows they’ll benefit from the help.

Nonetheless, she says it’s important to be compassionate and nonjudgmental as they do their work, and keep trying to show that the city genuinely wants to help.

Got a tip? Christopher Connelly is KERA's One Crisis Away Reporter, exploring life on the financial edge. Email Christopher at cconnelly@kera.org.You can follow Christopher on Twitter @hithisischris.

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Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.