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A Homeless Camp In Deep Ellum Provides Community. The City Of Dallas Wants To Remove It.

A few people stand in the center of what used to be a vacant lot. They're surrounded by tents put up by people facing homelessness who needed a safe place to stay.
Keren Carrión
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KERA News
People live in tents at Camp Rhonda, a homeless community located just outside of Deep Ellum in Dallas.

What used to be a vacant lot near Deep Ellum is now an encampment where about 30 people facing homelessness reside.

The encampment has been there since October, when volunteers and local organizations rallied on social media to find displaced Dallas residents a safe place to stay.

Lucy Sakiewicz was volunteering at Camp Rhonda Friday, serving soup out of a tall, silver pot. She said part of the reason they wanted to set up a space like this was to avoid city sweeps of homeless encampments.

Background: A female volunteer in a bright, pink sweatshirt leans on a shopping cart filled with firewood, talking animatedly. Foreground: Another male volunteer in a green hoodie and grey beanie faces her.
Keren Carrión
Lucy Sakiewicz, a volunteer with North Texas Rural Resilience Mutual Aid, expresses her concerns with the lack of communication between the city of Dallas and the homeless community about COVID-19 vaccinations.

“A lot of it is just general safety, there’s safety in numbers,” Sakiewicz said. “It was really a need for safety, a need for stability.”

Through crowdsourcing online, she said volunteers got in touch with Johnny Aguinaga who owns the property. He offered to let people pitch tents and stay there — but the city wants them to move out.

Spokesperson Catherine Cuellar said the city stopped conducting sweeps in December, following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to avoid displacing people experiencing homelessness, instead focusing on COVID-19 prevention.

Then on Jan. 27, Dallas’ Office of Code Compliance issued Aguinaga a notice of violation, stating his lot is industrially zoned, and the encampment is not in compliance with city regulations.

“The goal is code compliance, so no citations have been issued,” Cuellar said. “A notice of violation was issued and staff is trying to educate the property owner to bring the property into compliance. The zoning is there for everybody's health and safety.”

Originally, Aguinaga was given until Feb. 6 to get his property in compliance. That meant the residents of Camp Rhonda had just 10 days to find a new place to stay.

Two men and two women stand around a fire talking. They're surrounding by tents and a shopping cart filled with firewood.
Keren Carrión
Volunteers with North Texas Rural Resilience Mutual Aid speak with Gates about resources for him and the community, on Friday afternoon Feb. 5, 2021.

In response, advocates and volunteers spoke out against the city’s handling of Camp Rhonda at Tuesday’s city council meeting, including Valerie Eaton with Dallas Stops Evictions.

"We demand housing for residents at no charge,” Eaton said. “Dallas has thousands of homeless people and many more thousands of empty homes and apartments. Let's take the people who need that shelter and give it to them for the long term."

Background: A yellow, black and white Dallas Area Rapid Transit train rolls by. Foreground: A blue and orange tent are pitched in a vacant lot.
Keren Carrión
People live in tents at Camp Rhonda, a homeless community located just outside Deep Ellum, in Dallas.

Catherine Cuellar with the city said that’s what Dallas' Office of Homeless Solutions is aiming to do now. The office is working to connect residents of Camp Rhonda with resources and get some of them into hotel rooms temporarily.

“The city of Dallas owns hotels, which were acquired for just this purpose,” Cuellar said. “So the city of Dallas is providing transportation and COVID testing prior to hotel placement.”

Cuellar said the goal is to eventually find people permanent housing and put them in touch with case workers who can connect them to resources.

"You hear all these entities that are trying to help the homeless, but really they're not helping us. They're just sustaining us."
Robert Gates, resident of Camp Rhonda

She said Aguinaga, the property owner of Camp Rhonda, has one month to bring the lot into compliance. Cuellar did not say what actions the city would take if the property is not brought up to code.

Twelve residents of the camp have temporarily moved into hotel rooms. Four more are set to relocate on Monday, including Robert Gates.

A man with a white beard stands in front of a tent and looks into the distance to the left. He's wearing a rainbow striped shirt, a green camouflaged hat and red tinted sunglasses on his hat.
Keren Carrión
Robert Gates poses for a portrait at the Camp Rhonda site near Deep Ellum, in Dallas, on Feb. 5, 2021. Gates has been living at Camp Rhonda for about 5 days.
Camp Rhonda timeline that outlines when the camp was formed (Oct. 2020) to when residents have to evacuate (Feb. 6, 2021)
KERA News infographic

“Now I'm hoping that's the case, but I've seen so many times where they said they're going to do something and a week or two later, they just got the ball, and it's not whatever it is that they promise,” Gates said.

Gates has been homeless for at least 10 years. He’s been staying at Camp Rhonda about four days. He’s skeptical whether the city will follow through on its promises, but Gates said getting permanent housing would change his life.

“I'm treated worse than a dog, you know, most people treat their pets better than they treat me,” Gates said. “Everything is so hard being homeless. I mean, there's nothing out here for us, you know. You hear all these entities that are trying to help the homeless, but really they're not helping us. They're just sustaining us.”

Got a tip? Email Rebekah Morr at rmorr@kera.org. You can follow her on Twitter @bekah_morr.

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