Voices of invisible Tent City residents

The Dallas Examiner

After an Aug. 2 formal media statement on homelessness outside an illegal tent city was interrupted by unexpected violence, numerous television news crews entered the Interstate 45 settlement with police officers in order to record images of the location and the squatters themselves.

However, the residents of the camp – those trapped within intersecting fences of their own limitations, the conditions of the encampment, the authority of the city and the restrictions of relief agencies – remained unapproached; an untouchable American caste whose voices were virtually ignored that day.

Two homeless individuals did lift their voices to The Dallas Examiner, however, under the condition that they remained anonymous. The woman referred to as “Rhonda” may have been in her early 30s. The man referred to as “Kenneth” was a former construction worker from California who appeared to be in his late 40s.

The duo was part of a small group of African Americans socializing on the site. The occupants of the entire tent city in fact appeared to be 100 percent people of color, the fastest growing segment of displaced individuals in the county.

As reported by The Dallas Examiner in March, Cindy Crain, president and CEO of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, presented results from the city’s 2017 homeless count. The data she offered revealed a pattern nationwide: the number of permanently homeless Blacks within a city is statistically three times that of the total Black population of the city, a calculation seemingly consistent with the racial population living beneath the overpass.

Rhonda and Kenneth sat at an old wooden coffee table, a disheveled faux leather sofa placed along one side. On the table rested a marble chess set and an assortment of spices and utensils. Even as these individuals represented something as impersonal as a demographic, they also strove to make their area as clean and inviting as possible.

“I think what would make a difference for a lot of people here that are homeless is housing,” Kenneth said. “The shelters here, they’re not fitting. To me, they’re not shelters. They’re kind of ran like jail or something, and that’s what makes people not really stay there and end up out here.”

Ironically, Crain discussed the same topic when she reviewed this year’s homeless count: There is a dire need of affordable housing for those living on the streets.

“This means something to urban planners,” the CEO said at that time, explaining the geographic changes regarding where the homeless accumulated within city limits. “This means something to people who are going, ‘Do we build a shelter or do we build housing? Where do we put housing?’ … This means something to neighborhoods.”

“Here, it’s like they’re not trying to help,” Kenneth continued.

Rhonda stated that hygiene was a major problem in shelters, and Kenneth complained that often the food, including that donated to the tent city, is often beyond the indicated expiration date.

“So, you know, some people out here get sick,” he said.

Noticeably, the smell of mud mixed with human excrement was apparent in certain spots in the camp.

Rhonda addressed that with a gesture as she pointed at a blue, city-owned trash container.

“The city can actually come over here and – construction sites had the port-a-potties – so like, [put] three of them in the corner,” she suggested.

“Instead of the people who are in the office for Section 8 and low-income housing coming out here and putting people at the end of the wait list, how about they push them to get in housing, and they push them first instead of the people that have places, like that live with their family, because this is what you’d call emergency,” she added, indicating her surrounding.

Rhonda even suggested that parolees could come and clean up the trash at the camp as part of their community service.

Making things worse, many homeless use cellphones and similar devices to stay connected with relief agencies, she reflected. If these get lost, stolen, broken or simply malfunction due to summer heat, a displaced individual in a position to move out of the tent city via government assistance or a nonprofit organization ends up hitting a dead end of help and of hope.

Furthermore, in light of the knife-wielding woman who interrupted the media conference, the issue of safety became more urgent. Having a rapport is how Kenneth characterized the way to meet such a necessity.

“A lot of people here really need that, too, because a problem is a lot of people can’t get their medication.” He reiterated that shelters were not a good solution.

“You’ve got a lot of people that come in there that are different from other people, so to speak. They have people that steal from people. There’s no protection from certain people, especially [for] handicapped people,” he complained.

In May 2015, The Dallas Examiner reported on the homeless forum Re-Defining Community: One Conversation At a Time. During that program, SMU professor Willie Baronet talked about the what he learned spending time with indigent people across the U.S.

He estimated that one-third of the homeless population used drugs or alcohol regularly with the money people gave to them. He also underscored the fact that many homeless are mentally ill; when they live on the streets and their prescriptions run out, the displaced may turn to whatever chemical they can to deal with the reality they live in – the professor’s remarks then supporting a truth Kenneth suggests remains to this day.

“I’m not saying the city does nothing, but they can do more,” the construction worker voiced. “They put money in the projects, not thinking about the people that have nothing here. They have to put programs in place for more people who want to finish school or want to get their GED. There’s a lot of things they could do. It takes money to do it. In Texas, they have the money to do it,” he asserted, commenting on all of the downtown construction that someone must be paying for.

The consensus from the group concerning permanent changes for those homeless residents who did not struggle with mental issues or addiction was not so much the continued daily handouts, but rather a new foundation from which a transitional life could be firmly established.

“Not everybody out here is a drug addict or thieves and gangsters and stuff like that,” Kenneth said, describing some of the folks he shared the space with.

“They’re out here, but not everyone. A lot of people are out here because of something that happened in their life, or because of something.” He thought momentarily. “They lost a job, or they started doing drugs. But we’re all human. We all make mistakes.”

Rhonda was even more candid.

“Homeless people; they’re not necessarily the scum of the earth. We’re just the people that don’t know how to pick it up after, like the other people could – you know what I’m saying? – and keep it going.”

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