Homeless in Tarrant who choose to live outside face heat, other dangers

Posted Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Paul Davis sleeps beneath the stars in a tent that’s all but hidden, even though it’s a mile from downtown.

His temporary home borders a grassy field near a cliff overlooking Lancaster Avenue, and is accessible via steep, deeply carved footpaths or a gravel parking lot off Riverside Drive.

Last week, Davis was the only person sleeping at the site. But as many as 60 people at a time have called it “home” in the past.

“I don’t want to make this my life, but it’s my situation now,” he said.

Most of Tarrant County’s nearly 2,400 homeless spend nights in the shelters along East Lancaster or elsewhere in Fort Worth and Arlington, said Cindy Crain, executive director of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition.

But almost 300, including Davis, live in makeshift camps instead, come rain, snow — or endless string of 100-degree days. Their numbers remain small, but they appear to be growing.

The county’s homeless population has jumped 10 percent since a 2011 survey. But the number of people sleeping outside has increased from 136 to 281, even as road construction displaced many campsites.

Some of them said they were living outside because they had been temporarily barred from the shelters.

More than 70 percent, however, said they just don’t want to stay inside, fearing theft — or rules.

“Some people have their whole lives in a backpack,” said Desiree Demary, a community health care medic for MedStar. “If that gets taken, they’ve lost everything.

“Also, out here there are no rules. They have the freedom to set up the way they want.”

Fort Worth has no laws against sleeping outside, although police do write citations for obstruction of rights of way, city spokesman Bill Begley said.

Police and city officials, however, would rather see the homeless inside at night.

Although theft is more common inside the shelters, sexual assault and other physical attacks are more likely outside, according to a recent report by the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

“We prefer for our homeless citizens to be sheltered, so they can have access to services like hot meals, showers, clothes, as well as longer-term services like housing,” said Julie Cox, the Fort Worth Police Department’s liaison officer to the homeless.

It’s safer inside

Cox, whose office is near the shelters, said those staying outside tell her they sleep “with one eye open to make sure that no one steals their shoes. They walk around until they are certain that no one has followed them before they make their bed on the streets, alleyways or encampments.”

At least five homeless people have been killed in camps during the past 10 years, including a 52-year-old Forest Hill man stabbed multiple times during a crime spree for which five people were arrested.

The 2013 survey reported that 53 percent of homeless people reported being physically assaulted; 31 percent said they’ve been robbed; and 8 percent said they were sexually assaulted.

The survey did not indicate where the crimes occurred.

MedStar, Fort Worth’s ambulance service, funds a program to keep watch over the homeless using one of its medics and an SUV.

The service averages 10 ambulance trips a day to the city’s homeless district, which is roughly between Poplar and Pine streets along and a block or so off Lancaster Avenue, just southeast of downtown.

Patients who call 911 at least 15 times in 90 days get special attention, spokesman Sean Burton said.

“We do go out and check on those folks,” he said.

Demary cruises the area and nearby campsites about every other day, looking to head off emergency room visits and other problems.

“I handled a client not long ago, connecting him with JPS, where he got a primary physician,” she said. “He got into rehab, then got a great job and now he has his own apartment on the west side.”

‘Now I’m back out here’

Davis, a recovering drug user, is honest about why he chooses the summer heat over a roof.

“I did 15 months in prison,” he said. “Thirteen months of that was in high-security confinement. I can’t be closed up like that anymore.”

Davis is homeless for the second time in two years.

“Last time it was eight months,” he said. “I went back to the world and my ex-wife for a while. I lost my job … got into an argument with my ex-wife and, rather than have the law called on me again, I left. Now I’m back out here.”

His tent, for which he paid $60, sits amid a thick cane patch that makes it almost invisible. It’s the second he’s owned in his 2 1/2 months there.

He pointed to a pile of dark green fabric — his previous tent.

“Someone came out to cut the field while I wasn’t here,” he said. “They ... tore up everything and scattered my stuff all over.”

The temperature climbed past 85 degrees, on its way to 98, as Davis — wearing dark, knee-length shorts, a sleeveless shirt and cap — showed off his home.

An air mattress and bundles of clothes, water bottles and other possessions were scattered around the tent floor. Just outside was a five-gallon bucket that did double duty as storage and camp stool.

Temporarily homeless

A few blocks east of Davis’ digs, Janice Hazen and Georgia Taylor sat last week in camp chairs between a pair of tents set up beneath a bridge. Hazen’s husband was away at his new job, but the women weren’t alone.

Gage sat next to them. A year old and about 70 heavily muscled pounds, the Shar Pei-pit bull mix barked menacingly at anyone who approached.

“We can’t take our dog into the shelter, so we stay out here,” Hazen said.

They like it under the bridge almost as much as the site they had under a billboard, where Hazen said there was electricity to run a fan at night.

Their present home is the seventh location Hazen and her husband have settled into during the past three months.

“We got run off six times,” she said.

It’s cool under the bridge, and Hazen hoped to stay there until she moves into a travel trailer her husband bought with money saved from his weekly paychecks.

“Most people I’ve met out here are temporarily homeless because they lost their jobs,” Hazen said.

Taylor is among them. But she hopes it’s short-lived: A friend sent her a bus ticket to Nacogdoches, where he promised her a job in his florist shop.

Davis, too, is ready to move on. He’s pulled himself together, he said, and is looking for a full-time job.

“I just want to get on my feet again, by myself,” he said. “I’ve done it before.”

This report includes material from Star-Telegram archives.

Terry Evans, 817-390-7620 Twitter: @fwstevans

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