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As Tent City Closes, Dallas' Homeless Prepare For Life From Under The Highway

Tent City is located underneath the I-30 and I-45 overpass in Dallas. It closed in early May.

The city of Dallas has shut down Tent City, the homeless camp under Interstate 45 near downtown and Deep Ellum. Over the past few weeks, officials have helped hundreds of people move out. Caseworkers are helping homeless people prepare for life away from the highway underpass, but many of them face an uncertain future.

Inside Tent City In Its Last Days 

Morning rush hour beneath Interstates 30 and 45 is deafening. There’s a constant rumble and thud of cars passing overhead, yet somehow the people here are able to sleep. But in Tent City’s waning days, there’s not much time to rest.

Danielle Tooker is an outreach worker with MetroCare Services. She’s been out at Tent City almost every day preparing residents for the move. One recent morning, she visited one of her neediest clients, 60-year-old Samuel Patterson. He's been living in Tent City since December 2015.

He’s originally from Little Rock, Arkansas, where he served 10 years in prison for rape and sexual assault. He’s now a registered sex offender. He moved to Dallas after finishing his sentence, stayed a few months with his sister and then ended up on the streets. Patterson has a host of medical problems: trouble sleeping, anxiety and nerve damage from diabetes. He can barely walk, and spends most of his time in a wheelchair, in his sleeping bag or propped outside his tent.

"I’m more comfortable than I was downtown, being around the Bridge, the Stewpot and places like that and trying to sleep on the sidewalk," says Samuel Patterson, who's been living in Tent City since December 2015.

"I sit back and relax. I got those five gallon buckets on the outside that I normally sit at too. And I sit out there and enjoy the breeze and people passing by, watching cars, the 18 wheelers going across," he said. "It gets peaceful sometimes."

In quieter parts of the encampment, residents keep the dirt in front of their tents swept, they play cards, they hang out on couches and recliners. Sometimes they grill over plumes of smoke from metal barrels.  

Samuel Patterson’s grey and turquoise tent is tattered, but it's draped with quilts and blankets to keep out the noise and the elements. His tent  is among 200 scattered across wide swaths of sand and dirt. Inside, there are a few buckets, boxes of papers and magazines, empty food containers and dirty clothes. 

Samuel Patterson's tent.

"I’m more comfortable than I was downtown, being around the Bridge, the Stewpot and places like that and trying to sleep on the sidewalk," he said. "That’s almost a no-no."

Patterson said in Tent City, the police don’t shoo him away early in the morning.

Tent City Is A Community For Many

However peaceful and comfortable to its residents, the camp is not without its problems. Some people have brought in drugs and alcohol; others have been violent. Earlier this year, two people were stabbed to death and another two were arrested for attacking other residents with hatchets. Tent City has also become a public sanitation nightmare with concerns over access to toilets and accumulating trash. 

Kadesha, 22, didn't want to be identified by her last name. She’s been on her own since she turned 18. She said Tent City is not ideal, but it’s enough.

"It’s pretty much like if you were living in an apartment. You stay to yourself, keep your little circle. Other than that, it’s not really that bad," she said.

For Kadesha, 22, Tent City has become her own community. "We all help each other," she says.

For her, Tent City is more than just a homeless camp. It’s a community.

'We all have our different names for each side: Crack City, Alcohol Alley, Toochie Town, yada, yada, yada. But if they see that someone doesn’t have something to eat, we all help each other. If someone needs some clothes, we'll try to get together and get some clothes or get a little group together and get some water," Kadesha said.

Shutting Down Tent City 

The city says it has valid reasons to break up the community. A recent tally from Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance showed there was a 24 percent increase in the homeless population across Dallas over the past year. In Tent City alone, there were as many as 300 people at its peak.

"Those kind of numbers are not sustainable, unsafe and unsanitary. In fact, it was like an entire emergency shelter under a bridge, and we were overwhelmed," said Cindy Crain, President and CEO of Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance. 

Finding Housing Will Be A Challenge

She said finding a home for every Tent City resident is going to be tough -- if not impossible. There are people with no paper trail, which means they don't have ID cards, birth certificates, pay stubs or medical records, among many other things. Getting into a home and getting a job hinges on those documents.

Meanwhile, emergency shelters are full, and a  luxury building boom is limiting affordable housing development. Ultimately, Crain said there's just not enough permanent supportive housing for everyone in Tent City -- let alone the nearly 4,000 homeless people in the Dallas area. 

"To say the one place you feel safe is the one place you can no longer be, and I have no alternatives is very difficult," Crain said.

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

And then there are those in Tent City who face some extreme challenges: people with severe mental illness or physical disabilities, who may not have the income to get treated. Then there are those leaving prison, who Crain said are permanently labeled felons and then struggle to reenter society. 

This a reality Crain has to explain to many people, like Samuel Patterson, who is a registered sex offender with debilitating medical conditions and no money. His case workers are helping him fill out all the paperwork to find him an income and a permanent home, but there are no guarantees.

"There's going to be people left. There are people out here that no one really cares about," Patterson said. "If all else fails, I figure, it’d have to be going back to the street life that I was used to before I started this."

Tent City may not have been much, but to him, it was home.