Dallas' Homeless Say the City Tore Down Their Camp, Trashing Meds, Clothes in the Process
"They came by the other day and swept some of our stuff up," Michelle complained. She's a petite black woman in her mid 40s, with chin-length hair partially hidden under a black and orange knit cap. On a recent weekday morning, she was perched atop an upside down bucket, blowing on her hands to keep them warm. She was happy to talk but didn't want to give her last name.
"They say they don't want us out here," she added. "They want us all in a shelter. But the shelter is always full."
She was talking about the Austin Street Center, a homeless shelter a block or so from where she usually stays. Her preferred resting place is on Jeffries Street, a dead-end road in South Dallas, a few miles east of downtown. From here, she can see the DART trains as they come into the service station on Santa Fe Avenue, and watch as cars drive down nearby Hickory Street, on their way to the Alamo Swimming Pool or the nearby scrap metal business with its bright red-and-yellow facade.
She's not alone out here. On this particular morning, there are nine or ten tents still up, plus a few shopping carts filled with stuff, and an array of backpacks, chairs, clothes and two or three curious dogs. Around 15 people line the street, chatting, smoking, coughing, laughing. At night, between 30 and 40 people sleep there, in tents, in sleeping bags, sometimes curled up with just a blanket against the dirt.
The city would rather that they weren't here. And periodically, as a way to encourage them to come inside -- to a shelter, to permanent supportive housing, to the drug and alcohol treatment many of them need -- police officers, crisis outreach workers and sanitation workers come by and throw a bunch of their stuff away.
For the City of Dallas Crisis Intervention department, specifically their Homeless Street Outreach Unit, a large "homeless encampment" like this one is a problem, a red flag, a potential health and safety threat. For Michelle it's been home on and off for two years, save for the nights when she sleeps in a friend's truck or just gets too cold and tries to get a bed in the shelter.
Even when the shelter's not full, she doesn't like to sleep there, she says. "The last time I was in there was last month," she said. "There are so many people in there with AIDS, TB, hepatitis. I like to stay out here, where there's air."
Other people on the street said the shelter regularly fills up by 5 p.m. or so, meaning you have to line up in the early afternoon to get a spot. Others don't like it because of the rules -- no smoking, no drinking, no going back outside.
Until two weeks ago, Michelle slept in a tent, a gift from churchgoers who regularly come out here to feed people and give them basic items. But on the morning of Thursday, December 6, she and the other people on the street watched as a huge yellow front-loader rolled in. Behind it were five or six Dallas police cars, which blocked off the street. The front-loader swept through the camp, taking up everything in its path: tents, blankets, clothing, medicine and personal items. All of it went into a dumpster.
Michelle lost her tent, some of her clothes and her medication. She said she suffers from lupus, and has to take daily chemotherapy meds (according to the Lupus Foundation, these are prescribed for the most severe forms of the disease.) She also says she takes high blood pressure medication, muscle relaxers and Bayer aspirin, which she gets from her doctor at Parkland. All of it went into the trash.
"They didn't give us our stuff back," Michelle said. "And they shouldn't do that. They have all of us clowning."
Crisis Intervention acknowledges that yes, things did get thrown away. But they say that only came after the people on Jeffries were repeatedly encouraged by the department's outreach specialists, who are responsible for reducing chronic homelessness, to get inside, to accept shelter and addiction treatment.
"It is the responsibility of outreach specialists to ensure that homeless individuals are treated in a humane and professional manner," reads part of a lengthy statement sent over by the department, "and not infringe upon the client's rights and self determination." (The full statement is below.)
Crisis Intervention says their outreach workers have "persistently engaged a number of homeless persons living in a large trash-filled encampment situated along public right-of-way on Jefferies Street near the Austin Street Shelter." Short of helping to clean up the encampment, they say, shelter staff and the public have actually made it worse:
Staff from the Austin Street Shelter often brings hot meals and water to the encampment, and frequently allows them to utilize shower facilities. Passerby's often bring additional sustenance, blankets, etc. which has created a perception of satisfaction and self-sufficiency among the residents. Therefore, those who have taken up residence or utilize the site for socialization routinely refuse offers for services, and greet outreach teams with hostility and threats during visits.
The situation was untenable, the department says, and ultimately unhealthy for both the people living on Jeffries and the general public. For that reason, Crisis Outreach organized an intervention, something they do periodically "to address homeless encampments citywide in a humane and therapeutic manner."
These interventions, they say, involve "the therapeutic and non-threatening engagement of homeless persons residing in encampments that involve multi-city departments and collaborations that include police and sanitation, behavioral health providers, shelters, and veterans' organizations."
"Interventions are never defined or viewed as 'sweeps' or 'clean-ups,'" they say.
December 6 was one of these not-sweeps. Police officers provided security while outreach workers came through the camp "offering shelter and services." Three people accepted and were transported to a treatment facility and another shelter. But most people just collected their tents and their grocery carts and moved a safe distance away, waiting until the workers were gone. "Items abandoned or left on the street were removed by street sanitation workers," the statement says.
Furthermore, it adds:
Throughout the process, outreach workers continually verbally reminded and encouraged the homeless to keep control of their personal possessions such as money, medications, identification cards, benefit information, family pictures, Bibles, and anything of a personal worth. Per written policy, outreach workers are not allowed to touch or handle the client's possessions for any reason, and are prohibited from forcefully removing or grasping any item from a homeless person while it is in their possession. In addition, crisis outreach workers are prohibited from removing individuals, threatening or even suggesting that individuals leave an area.
If all of this sounds a little familiar, it should. In 2005, homeless people living in an encampment downtown lost their stuff in a similar sweep, which our own Jim Schutze wrote about. The fact that their things ended up in a landfill was characterized by the city manager as a mistake. The homeless were given claim forms to document what they'd lost.
This time, there are no such claim forms, no pretense that the things that were lost will ever be recovered. People on the street say the clean-ups happen periodically every few months, something that was also confirmed to me by a city employee. Sometimes the homeless are warned by crisis outreach workers or cops beforehand. Sometimes they aren't.
I first heard about the clean-ups from an activist group called Guerilla Mainframe, a South Dallas-focused organization that comes out to feed the homeless on Jeffries every few weeks.
"We fed over 100 people yesterday," one of their members wrote to me in a email (he asked that his name not be used). "We also found out that the city code enforcement came by and took all the homeless blankets and tents. GM will go out there again this weekend and distribute blankets on this upcoming Saturday." That message is from November 4.
City officials say there's no reason why anyone should have lost their medications, their clothes or their personal items -- the people on the street had ample warning that they needed to move their stuff, they say. But Michelle didn't get the memo. Neither did a woman named Latricia, who lost her bed, clothes and hygiene products.
"They took everything," she says. "This time I didn't know." The last time there was a sweep, she says, "they left a card on my pillow" a little while before, warning her what was about to happen. This time, after her stuff was gone, a woman from Crisis Intervention promised to come back and give her some help. She's still waiting.
Earnest Gilden, 65, says he lost his high blood pressure medication, his cholesterol meds, and his medical records. Eric White, 63, sitting nearby, says he lost his blood pressure meds too, along with his birth certificate.
"They shouldn't have did that," Gilden says disgustedly.
Other people on the street, too, don't seem to recognize that they have been engaged with in "a humane and therapeutic manner."
"They gonna let us freeze to death out here," one guy complains. He doesn't want to give his name. "This is not their property. This is the school district's property." (He's right, as it turns out. The land does belong to DISD, according to city officials).
The man doesn't understand why the city tries to keep moving them along, he says. "We got no jobs. We ain't making no money. We're not asking for nothing."
For now, they've reached a detente with the city, they say. They're allowed to keep their tents, provided they take them down between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays. On weekends, they can stay up all day. But they know that sooner or later, the front loader will be back.
"That's nothing new under the sun," a supervisor at the Austin Street Shelter says of the clean-ups, when he answers the phone over there. He talks hurriedly for a few minutes over the din in the background, then hangs up abruptly, not offering his name. He's been homeless himself, he says. Slept under bridges, in tents, cardboard boxes. And while the shelter does get full every night, he adds, they never turn people away.
"Until they decide they want to get off those streets, they're not going to, " he declares. "It's like a spinning wheel, and it's not going to end. Writing a ticket ain't the answer either. You keep taking their stuff, dumping it in the trash, they're gonna get more stuff. There's always somebody's that's gonna care."