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Once Out Of Tent City, Dallas' Homeless Struggle To Find A Place To Live

Tent City is located underneath the I-30 and I-45 overpass in Dallas. It's scheduled to close May 4.

The deadline to close Tent City in Dallas is May 4. As hundreds of homeless men and women leave life from under the interstate, the difficult task will be to keep them off the streets. Advocates and researchers say the city's response to finding them permanent housing is largely inadequate.

Samuel Patterson doesn't want to wake up most mornings. He’s 60 years old, and because of diabetic nerve damage, he’s largely confined to a sleeping bag in his tent or his wheelchair. Since he was notified of Tent City's closure, he's started to wake up a little early. Patterson still believes he has purpose.

"I know God is sending me a certain way," he said. "I want to see what God has planned for me cause I know he ain’t through with me."

Early one recent morning, he wheeled himself  from Tent City just a few blocks over to the CitySquare Opportunity Center to attend the weekly “ID Blitz," where social workers help homeless people apply for IDs, benefits and housing. Patterson was trying to track down some Social Security income, which, for people who've been out of work with disabilities, is often the first step to finding a permanent home. 

He could be eligible for $733 a month, but getting that money could mean a two-year wait. It wouldn't be Patterson's first time. He's been denied for insurance claims, disability and other benefits plenty of times in the past. He said it's an all-too-familiar conversation. 

Samuel Patterson works with caseworker Terri Byrd to find Social Security income.

"They didn’t really seem to be interested in helping me, only in letting me know ‘you’ve been denied,’ or ‘we’ll send you some paperwork,'" Patterson said. "Well I didn’t have another ounce of strength after that."

This is a sentiment that’s far too common for homeless people. Now, with the upcoming closure of Tent City, it’s a sentiment that many will have to rehash. 

"A lot of what we see in Tent City are people who have tried various housing programs, who have tried to get a job and the system doesn’t work for them, so eventually after weeks, months and years, it’s hard to believe in hope," said Jonathan Grace, a pastor and social worker at the nonprofit CitySquare. "And when you reach that point and you move into a tent under I-45, you believe this is the best my life could possibly get."

The city decided to shut down the camp when a recent tally showed there was a 24 percent increase in the homeless population across Dallas over the past year. And while the homeless encampment has become too unsanitary, violent and unsustainable, Tent City’s shutdown means that about 300 people will no longer have a place to call home. Grace said finding one for each them is going to be tough -- if not impossible.

First, most don’t have a paper trail, which means they don't have vital documents, like an ID, a birth certificate or pay stubs. Grace said it's like they don't even exist. 

"If you want to get housed, get a job, of course you just lay your ID on the table. Your employer, your landlord or whoever looks at it and makes a copy. But when you have nothing, that’s a massive barrier to employment and housing," he said. "In order to get a Social Security card, you’ll need an ID. In order to get an ID, you’ll need a Social Security card and a birth certificate. All these things. It’s incredibly difficult without an extreme amount of help."

Case workers will try to locate school or medical records to fill in the gaps. Just this process could take anywhere from a few weeks to years.  

Then there are some homeless people who are resistant to housing. Many will turn down a shelter bed because they say that have pets or too much stuff. Some say living in a shelter feels like jail and strips them of the freedom they have on the street. And many others say that just don’t feel safe sleeping so close to people who could rob or assault them. 

Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance's Rebecca Cox said even those who eventually find permanent housing tend to self-destruct.

"Because they’ve been homeless and acclimated to that fight or flight mode for five to six years, some of them," she said. "And then to say, ‘everything you’ve learned how to live through, now all of a sudden we’re going to take you and put you in an entirely new environment and you're going to have to relearn how to live with neighbors and appropriately act with people.'  It’s terrifying." 

Then there are those in Tent City who face some extreme challenges -- people with mental illness as well as felons and sex offenders, who struggle to reenter society after serving time. CitySquare’s Jonathan Grace said housing them should be a priority. 

"If we just keep criminalizing their behavior, taking away resources, blaming them and kicking them while they're down, there's going to be more Tent Cities popping up and people living in squalor and despair," he said.

The biggest hurdle, though, is housing itself. 

The city decided to shut down Tent City after a recent tally showed there was a 24 percent increase in the homeless population across Dallas over the past year.

"There’s just not any where near a sufficient supply of permanent housing for people experiencing chronic homelessness," said Cindy Crain, president and CEO of Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance. 

There's something called permanent supportive housing, which provides wraparound services that help get the homeless back on their feet, find work and get medical care. In Dallas, there are just over 3,000 permanent supportive housing beds. Almost all of them are full. Meanwhile, there are nearly 4,000 other people who are still homeless -- in a tight market with few low-priced apartments. Crain said all that has a price. 

"When you are constantly worried about how you’re going to feed yourself, about your immediate security, how you’re going to tend to your most basic hygiene needs, that’s a 24/7 process."

She said it's impossible to expect a homeless person with disabilities or substance abuse issues to be able to bring themselves out of those problems without a stable environment first. 

Crain added that while there isn't enough permanent housing in Dallas, the city and its agencies should continue developing a housing plan for the homeless. One solution could be the pilot housing project, the Cottages at Hickory Crossing, just south of downtown. It would permanently house 50 chronically homeless men and women -- those deemed the costliest to the county’s jails, hospitals and emergency response systems. And it would house them less than $15,000 a person. But 50 cottages won’t make much of a dent. 

That leads back to Samuel Patterson, who not only has a chronic illness, but is a registered sex offender. His options are limited.

"I want to be in a house. I want to live how normal people live," he said. "And now I turn around after being homeless, I’m down on my luck; I’m down on my spirit; I don’t care if I live or die. I don’t like to be here like that."

He's just one of many folks leaving Tent City, uncertain about their next stop.