‘We’re just trying to survive’: Unhoused people figure out next steps after Fort Worth crews raze encampment
FORT WORTH, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) — You might think of the “tent cities” or “encampments” under the overpass or on the side of the road as an eyesore, a symptom of urban blight. As you pass them on the way to work, going out to eat, or leaving to buy groceries, maybe you wonder to yourself why they’re allowed to stay up, why the city doesn’t try to get rid of them.
But have you ever seen for yourself what it looks like when one of these encampments is actually cleared out?
On the morning of Dec. 30, 2022, Fort Worth police and code compliance workers arrived with squad cars and bulldozers at the I-35 overpass over E. Lancaster Ave. The unhoused residents were told to pack their things and leave. The bulldozers swept in a few minutes later and wiped away what remained of a community of sorts that had been there for months if not years. The people there had nowhere to go, but they couldn’t stay there.
One of the people living there, a young woman pushing a cart full of clothes and other supplies, said the only warning she had heard this was coming was when a person from the city had come earlier in the week and said that they needed to leave before Friday. The problem was that she – and many of the others living there – had nowhere to go.
Some of them had been here for weeks, others for months. Some had been homeless for years, others for less than a month. They all said that the city did not offer any help nor any resources for them to follow up with. Their community was demolished and torn apart as they stood watching helplessly, left to figure out what to do next by themselves.
Of course, this was not surprising to anyone there. Most of the people who had been homeless for a while said that the only times they ever heard from city officials was when they were being told to leave somewhere. No news was usually good news; they couldn’t recall anyone ever coming out to offer them help or resources. Nobody even reached out before the deep freeze that caused temperatures to plunge into the low teens earlier this month.
I asked many of the people why they hadn’t gone to a shelter. A young woman who preferred not to be identified said that she and her partner had gone to a nearby shelter about a month ago when they first became homeless, but claimed it was “nasty” and “full of bedbugs.”
And that was if they were lucky to get a bed at all. She said that only a certain number of people are able to get a bed each day. Another man, who asked to only be referred to by his first name, Carl, added, “Nobody wants to be out here. I want to work but I can’t even get a bed.”
The housing assistance programs often are not much help either. Even those who manage to get a housing voucher can spend several years on a waiting list before housing becomes available. One woman told me that she had received a voucher for the public housing program through the DRC – formerly known as the Day Resource Center for the Homeless – about two or three years ago but had been stuck on the waiting list ever since.
Eric Hill had a similar experience. He said to me that he has been homeless since about 2019 or 2020 and about a year ago, he was finally able to get a housing voucher through the DRC. However, he too was stuck on the waiting list and frustrated that he was still without a home. “I’m in the program… I want to know why I am still outside dealing with this nonsense.”
When I asked Hill about the perception that people experiencing homelessness want to be on the street or don’t want to work, he was adamant that this isn’t the case. He said that one of the biggest problems with programs set up to assist the homeless was that they are severely underfunded and understaffed. Caseworkers get shifted around and reassigned all the time, making it difficult for both the organization and individuals to follow up. “My case got transferred,” he said. “They all get transferred.”
Hill made it clear that these problems were not new. He and others told me that the lack of beds at night shelters was usually not due to a lack of space or actual beds but short staffing. The city, he believes, puts more resources into keeping the homeless out of sight rather than off the streets. This wasn’t his first time seeing an encampment being cleared; he’d come to this underpass after his previous spot near the railway was cleared out by the city a few months earlier.
Razing encampments may move the homeless out of sight, but it often only makes things worse for the people displaced. Many of the people living in tent communities have disabilities that make it difficult to relocate. Hill explained that it was tough for him to get anywhere because he suffers from serious untreated gout and is disabled, using a wheelchair and cane to get around. Constantly moving from place to place was difficult because of the pain his gout caused him. Even getting to the True Worth day shelter about a block away from the underpass took Hill up to 30 minutes.
Hill said that if nobody is going to help them, the least they could do is not make things worse. “They [police] keep harassing us from one location to the next,” he said with frustration. “We’re just trying to survive!”
I asked Hill about the night shelters, and he also complained about bed bugs but added that theft was a common problem as well. Even though most shelters have security guards, Hill said they rarely actually did much to help. He recalled one time at a nearby night shelter where someone stole his belongings while the guards just watched. “Security does nothing. They just want an easy assignment. They don’t care.”
Between the thefts, pests, and lack of space, most people said they didn’t even waste their time trying to get a bed anymore. But without the help of a program or a place to call home, it can be nearly impossible to get a job. I asked Carl if he had any luck applying and he said he had tried many times to no avail. He explained that while at a shelter, someone had stolen his belongings, including a phone, an old laptop, and his driver’s license. Without a valid ID, he said, most places simply can’t hire you.
Charities can offer some help, but they aren’t reliable enough to be long-term solutions. Most organizations that provide goods like food and clothes are reliant on donations and what’s available at any given time just depends on what donations came in that day. Carl recalled a time where he agreed to help sort the goods at the Tarrant County Food Bank in exchange for some clothes. However, none of the clothes they had that day fit him.
When asked what they planned to do next, most of the people I talked to said they didn’t know. Maybe they’d try their luck moving up or down Lancaster to one of the other tents that were left standing out in the open or head to one of the other communities around town. A few said they would probably head to the day shelter and figure out their next steps. Nobody was hopeful that anything would change for the better. “I’m out of solutions… The city’s out of solutions,” Hill told me before I left, “and this is damn near sickening. My health can’t keep up.”
As I walked back to my car, the city workers were almost done dumping the remnants of the camp into a garbage pile. The empty coffee table frame, dusty sleeping bags, and ripped up tents packed into a shopping cart were among the last signs that anyone had ever lived here, and they too would soon be gone. But the material possessions alone couldn’t fully capture what was lost. A lone torn gift bag adorned with Christmas imagery was a sobering reminder that this unlikely community was a place that some of the most vulnerable members of society could call home, where they could find others who understood what it’s like to be on the streets, where they celebrated together.
And yet, despite the destruction and terror these operations bring, they’ve become almost normalized, routinely carried out by a multidepartment agency called the “Hope Team.” But there is no long-term solution in this approach; tearing down tent communities won’t provide houses to the unhoused or jobs to the jobless. The Sisyphean cycle of destruction and rebuilding repeats over and over, and the same men and women just trying to survive are left to pick up the pieces each time.
We have reached out to the City of Fort Worth and Fort Worth Police Department for comment, but they have not yet responded.
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texasstandard.news contributed to this report.