The Dallas Examiner
“This area has been nicknamed ‘Zombieland’ because that’s what’s here due to mental illness, drug abuse, all other kinds of illnesses and idiosyncrasies. It’s what we deal with on a daily basis,” said Ibrahim Abdullah of the Masjid Al-Islam Beacon of Light Community Outreach Service Center as he stood within the homeless tent city under Interstate 45 near Fair Park, Aug. 2.
During an announcement that afternoon by a group calling themselves The South Dallas Fair Park Residents and Business Communities, members of the organization gathered in front of the encampment and spoke on the blight, filth and crime that the homeless generated in the neighborhood.
“We are not condemning the people themselves, who are forced by economic and social conditions, who probably because of personal injury, illness and addictions [have] to live outdoors,” began Thomas Muhammad, a business owner who grew up near the freeway, as he read from the organization’s prepared statement.
“We are condemning the heartless policies of Dallas City Hall, which subsidize developers to gentrify the inner city, but can’t find enough resources to help people off the street,” he continued.
The organization, loosely formed of faith and city leaders, business owners and residents, spoke out on the ineffectiveness of the city’s plan for the homeless – a population that is 58 percent African American, per the 2017 Point-In-Time Homeless Count released in January – which they claimed led to the further spreading of homelessness into business districts and neighborhoods, bringing lawlessness, panhandling, fear and squalor.
Muhammad also expressed that those displaced and living under I-45 were themselves living in “inhumane and continued deteriorating conditions.”
Unexpectedly during the announcement, one apparently mentally impaired denizen of the tent city appeared over a small rise, carrying a car wash spray nozzle in the manner of a rifle and a Chuppa Company knife in her raised left hand. She moved in closer to the assembly with little notice, the advocates focused on their message and the media concentrated on the announcement.
The unnamed woman had the opportunity to move close behind former City Councilwoman Carolyn R. Davis and eventually walked directly between the surprised speakers and onlookers as DPD Corporal B. Ledezma followed closely. The officer was able to quickly disarm the woman, who was then arrested with no further violence. Yet, it was the actions of the unidentified indigent woman who lived in the camp that bore witness to the reality of Muhammad’s message.
“It is a health hazard. It is a crime-infested place that has increased the criminal activity in our neighborhood,” said Tammy Johnston, president of the South Boulevard-Park Row Neighborhood Association about the blemish the tent city has created for locals. “We have people camping out in our alleyways behind our homes.”
In consideration of the conditions that breed such dangerous situations, the advocates suggested four points of change the city needs to engage when dealing with the homeless where current efforts have failed.
Closing the enclave itself was considered a top priority for the group. As Abdullah gestured towards support columns of the overpass, there were posted signs that warned litterers and trespassers of fines and arrest and wording that urged residents to call TxDOT in case of an emergency.
“Well, this is an immediate emergency,” Abdullah remarked. “I don’t think we need new legislation. Let’s just enforce what’s already been posted for how long.”
Rent assistance was also strongly recommended by the speakers. A six-month rent support fund for every individual living in the encampment, similar to what was implemented in the Deep Ellum area during the 1990s, would better serve the homeless than shelters alone, the group indicated.
Another demand – to cut off public funding to relief agencies The Bridge and CitySquare until the city closes the camp – was directed specifically at Mike Rawlings, since the mayor is a major supporter of these entities. Meanwhile, the problem of people living on the streets continues, seemingly unabated.
“Obviously these providers either don’t care about ‘Majority Black South Dallas’ or they are clueless about homeless problems,” the SDFPRBC written statement alleged.
The final point recommended by Muhammad, Davis, Abdullah and others referred to the creation of a Homeless Community Task Force for city-run The Bridge, a team made up of the community and homeless individuals. The Bridge was again criticized, seen by the organization as appearing to be too similar to other private shelters, “which appear to want to help only the ‘virtuous’ homeless persons.”
The specifics of the task force were not laid out, but Muhammad angrily denounced CitySquare as selling a “pipe dream” of taking in the homeless, training them, and graduating them into affordable housing. He complained that taxpayer-funding of what the SDFPRBC considers underperforming relief agencies needed to come to a halt until their outreach was more inclusive towards the needs of those living on the streets.
After the formal statement had concluded and a tour of the encampment began, the episode with the armed homeless woman was impossible to shake. It perfectly illustrated the lowest rung of homelessness for which there persistently appears to be no remedy.
“This is every day. This is every day. This is every night,” Abdullah said. “Every time one encampment closes they come back and focus on this area right here, which is probably the most neglected area in the city.”