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'We Need Each Other': Pressure From The City Of Dallas Forces Homeless Camp To Relocate

Residents of a Dallas homeless encampment known as Camp Rhonda are being forced to relocate again. The property they’re staying on is industrially zoned, and the city gave the property owner until the end of February to bring the lot into compliance.

Just outside the entrance to Camp Rhonda under Interstate 45, Carl Hodge leaned against his car to take a breather. He spent much of the day Tuesday cleaning and packing under the hot Texas sun.

Hodge and dozens of other residents spent the day stuffing belongings into cardboard boxes and trash bags, getting ready to move out.

Carl Hodge sits in his silver sedan with the driver's side window rolled down, looking over his left shoulder. He's wearing a blue and silver Dallas Cowboys shirt and a worn grey baseball hat.
Keren Carrión
Carl Hodge, a resident of Camp Rhonda, says he usually takes care of the people there by driving them around. He says he is one of two people at the site with a car.

But Hodge says he’s not quite ready to leave the community they’ve built at Camp Rhonda in Dallas’ Deep Ellum neighborhood. It's a space where about 30 people facing homelessness have resided.

“Out here in the elements and everything, we need each other,” Hodge said. “We watch each other, we watch each other’s property. What little property we have, you know, is worth a lot. So we gotta look out for each other.”

The city of Dallas is cracking down on the encampment, citing safety and security issues. The city says the property is industrially zoned and has been used illegally.

Johnny Aguinaga owns the property the encampment sits on. He asked residents of the camp, and a smaller one called Camp Joy, to clear out by Wednesday to avoid fines from the city.

Dallas’ Office of Code Compliance issued a notice of violation to Aguinaga in late January. The city threatened to fine him up to $2,000 per day if the encampment wasn’t shut down.

"All we’re trying to do is get housing, housing and better living, you know? This COVID thing has brought a whole lot of people down. People lost cars, houses and everything..."
Carl Hodge, resident of Camp Rhonda

But Aguinaga still sees the endeavor to get people off the streets as a success.

“This was not a forever camp,” he said. “This was to recognize the issue and do something about it.”

Hodge and about 20 other residents are headed to a hotel for two weeks, paid for by a group of nonprofits, including Dallas Stops Evictions and Feed the People Dallas. Everyone else will relocate to one of Aguinaga’s other lots in an undisclosed location, to set up a new camp.

Hodge said it’ll be nice to stay in a hotel for awhile, but it’s temporary — like most of his living situations have been since becoming homeless.

He said he’s disappointed in the city of Dallas for what he calls its "lack of action" to address housing issues that have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“All we’re trying to do is get housing, housing and better living, you know?” Hodge said. “This COVID thing has brought a whole lot of people down. People lost cars, houses and everything. That’s the problem here, so if the city would kick in and help us with housing that would be a better thing. A solution.”

In an interview earlier this month, city spokeswoman Catherine Cuellar said Dallas is committed to finding a compassionate solution to bring the lot into compliance.

Johnny Aguinaga stands toward the entrance of Camp Rhonda wearing a dark grey shirt. Behind him, residents of the encampment are packing up their tent and belongings.
Keren Carrión
Johnny Aguinaga, owner of the lot where Camp Rhonda is located, plans to move the encampment to another area in Dallas.

“The goal is code compliance, so no citations have been issued,” Cuellar said. “The zoning is there for everybody's health and safety.”

Earlier this month, the city helped move about 15 people who were previously staying at the camp into hotel rooms owned by the city. The intention was to get people connected with case managers and social workers who could help find permanent housing.

"Our staff will continue to work to build relationships as they do with other residents of encampments to try and get them into the continuum of care,” Cuellar said. “Encampments are not a healthy or safe place to live stably. But building those trusting relationships with people in need of these services takes time."

Homeless advocates want the city to do more.

Aguinaga says he wishes the city would allow encampments under special circumstances, like a pandemic and severe winter storms.

“Just something to get them off the streets,” he said.

Ryan Ahmadian is with Dallas Stops Evictions and is co-founder of the Dallas Homeless Committee. He said volunteers are providing support to unsheltered people in Dallas when that help should come from the city. The nonprofit groups working at Camp Rhonda are demanding city leaders take action to address what Ahmadian calls "a housing crisis."

“Start allocating properties over to low-income and extremely low-income housing so there’s more opportunity to actually get into housing,” Ahmadian said.

Adding low-income housing is just one of the groups’ demands.

They want the Camp Rhonda and Joy properties rezoned as residential properties and for the city to cease fines for property owners who allow people facing homelessness to stay on their land. They’re also demanding that all homeless camps be allowed to operate permanently, and for the city to provide enhanced sanitation like restrooms and hand washing stations.

“We’re going to continue working with the city to meet our demands but also work with us. We've kept that line of communications open at all times,” Ahmadian said.

KERA requested information from the city about whether people from Camp Rhonda have found permanent housing yet, and if it has a response to the nonprofit groups’ demands. The city has not immediately responded.

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

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