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Why some homeless choose to survive in tent cities when shelters await

It’s a Thursday morning and the turn from Lancaster Avenue to Presidio Street has an ostensible speed limit in the double digits, but it can really only be taken at 5 mph with all the homeless crossing the streets, carts loaded in front of them or possessions carried on their backs. Salvador Cariaga takes it carefully in his red van — which in theory could seat seven people, if he ever chose to clean out the piles of toilet paper, blankets, Styrofoam cups and supplies in the back.

Cariaga is a Filipino minister who has made the homeless of Fort Worth his project. He has a Fort Worthian wife and comes from a long line of ministers (“I have a complex,” he joked, pointing to his first name. “Imagine if my parents named me Jesus.” It's a trait he’s passed on to his sons).

At this point, he’s best known for ministering to the "tent city" that popped up on Lancaster Avenue, on the land owned by Union Pacific Railroad. Police cleaned it out in early March. Now all that’s left is trash and tent remnants — and a sign that warns against trespassing. Cariaga is most certainly not allowed.

“I step in there, I go straight to jail.” He thought for a minute and chuckled. “I might try that just to, you know, get some publicity.”

The tents are a problem that feels like a never-ending cycle — remove one camp and it seems like another pops up.

Police just removed the last big tent city, but it hasn't stopped people from camping. For all the resources Fort Worth has to offer and the coordinated efforts across Tarrant County, homelessness is a problem that isn't going away and one that citizens continually complain about. And it's one that's hard to solve with just one change.

This is the time of year that Tarrant County takes stock of its progress on the issue. The total number of homeless in Tarrant County increased by 5 percent this year, which is in line with national numbers, according to the annual State of the Homeless address in late March. A total of 6,701 people experienced homelessness between October 2016 and October 2017.

For all the visibility of the campers, the unsheltered account for just 20 percent of the homeless population, said Tammy McGhee, the executive director of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition. And Fort Worth, she said, has no more homeless residents than expected for a city its size — about 2,015 on any given night in Tarrant County, using the official federal definition of homelessness.

“Of course, one homeless is not acceptable in my mind,” McGhee said. “It’s a manageable issue. It’s just us creating a strategy and finding what’s the best strategy.”

McGhee has been the director of the homeless coalition for just four months but has worked in homeless services for the last 20 years. In that time, she’s seen homeless resourcing evolve from organic church-based services to a data-driven collaborative model that has best practices standards.

While there are plenty of resources — shelters, groups lining up to help feed, mental health outreach — it can feel like that 20 percent is a difficult problem to overcome. And then there's the "chronically homeless" — those who return to homelessness within two years after heading to permanent housing — who account for 16 percent of the homeless population.

Some of the main service providers in Fort Worth are shelters, including Union Gospel Mission, Presbyterian Night Shelter and True Worth, all along Lancaster. John Peter Smith Hospital provides services in the area. There’s a mental health office there, too.

On this Thursday morning, Cariaga is driving with two women who were former campers and want nothing to do with the shelters. There’s Tina in the back, a nurse in a blue peasant blouse and Longhorns hat who fell into homelessness after her father and husband died in quick succession. Mercedes is in the middle seat, army-camo T-shirt and barely showing at 4 months pregnant with her second child. The first child was given up for adoption.

Cariaga jokes that he’s becoming the homeless chauffeur. It’s something of an essential service — a lack of transportation leaves many homeless people with few job and housing options.

Tina and Mercedes are among the 20 percent of unsheltered homeless in Fort Worth. Sometimes there’s not enough room in shelters for everyone. But mainly, the unsheltered simply don’t want to live in shelters. Some have PTSD and can’t deal with being around a large number of people. Others, for whatever reason — mental health issues, perhaps — can’t comply with shelter regulations. Some have been barred from shelters. Some report feeling safer in camps. Their things aren’t stolen.

"Lots of women don’t want to be in the shelters because there’s security guards that are males now,” Mercedes explained (herself included: she’s with a good man now but had an abusive relationship in the past). She also had issues working for her bed and food, as some of the shelters require. Her overwhelming anxiety (it’s getting better now with treatment, she says) made it feel impossible.

“It's just a vicious cycle, and you're tired,” Tina said. “You're tired all the time because you're hauling your stuff, you got to have your stuff at a certain place at a certain time, you got to pick it up at a certain time. If you don't, all your stuff gets thrown out. It just seems like a hopeless cycle.”

Then there are the other rumors swirling about the shelters — like the bedbugs. Those, says Mike Kuzenka, the Fort Worth police’s homeless liaison, are unequivocally untrue. Kuzenka has served as the homeless liaison for the past two years. Much of the time, he says, his job functions as a go-between. He refers homeless people to the proper outreach organizations and takes citizens’ complaints.

If there’s anything he wishes citizens knew, it’s for them to make arrangements with him or an official outreach team before giving items to the homeless. The outreach teams are the ones who know where the need is.

Many of the citizen complaints Kuzenka hears are about camping: There’s trash, the camps are on private property and need to go, they've become an unsanitary biohazard. The city of Fort Worth does not condone camping. But Kuzenka said evictions aren’t vindictive: “I stall the process to give the homeless time to find a home or another thing.”

McGhee explained that the coalition has a coordinated effort with the city around it — the outreach teams are always notified when there’s a pending eviction to see if they can persuade anyone in the camps to seek shelter and help them navigate housing. They’re still wading through best practices to help campers.

But “camping’s not a dignified way to live,” she said. “It’s not the ideal for any community.”

Kuzenka added: “That’s the biggest problem, it’s from one camp to another or one person’s property to another.”

Driving around the Lancaster area in Cariaga’s van, Tina and Mercedes pointed to all the places they used to camp over the last few years. They went back and forth on one patch of land off Lancaster for months back in 2015 — a cycle of evictions and returns — before the city fenced it off. People still sleep on the sidewalk. The camp in the railroad land was enormous, and Cariaga and other volunteers were there all the time, getting to know the homeless who lived there.

There was an area where people did drugs — farthest back from the road — an area where prostitution went on, an area where people with mental problems congregated. Once, Cariaga was able to get a 17-year-old back to his mother with a Facebook post. If he did it again, in retrospect, he would try to run a camp with stricter rules.

“They were a little naïve at first,” Kuzenka said. I had to pull them in because they’re eventually gonna get taken advantage of.”

With the latest railroad eviction, people have retreated farther into wooded lands and parks.

“Now, I understand why they took everyone off the railroad. I completely understand that. I wouldn't want someone walking around my railroad either, you know? It's dangerous,” Mercedes said. “But why would you take them from somewhere that's abandoned? You're just going to make them move somewhere that's public. They're all moving to the public park. I mean, what's the difference?”

No matter the group, the goal is to get homeless into permanent homes. Cariaga’s approach is to pick about 10 people he can engage with on a personal level, hold accountable, maybe get into rehab and eventually into a permanent home. He posts updates on his Facebook page. People follow him. It’s easier that way, he says, to engage people, and show them that homelessness isn’t an identity.

But it’s gotten harder to get into permanent housing in the past few years. As Fort Worth home values have gone up (prices are up 33 percent the past three years), housing vouchers can no longer cover the fair market rent, McGhee said. Landlords are more and more reluctant to take housing subsidies. The groups under the coalition, she said, operate in the national standard of a housing-first model. And wages aren't keeping up.

“There’s no one thing you can pinpoint and say, ‘If we just fixed this, this person’s life would be transformed,’” she said.

Two things that would help, Tina said, are transportation access (how else is she supposed to get to and from a job?) and help getting proper ID. She hasn’t had one for years. She got a temporary paper ID but never got her plastic one. It was supposedly mailed to one of the shelters, she said, but never got to her. Mercedes, too, would’ve wanted help getting her ID (it took her months of back and forth to get help getting her paperwork straight). She also wants transit.

“Everybody’s so flippant — ‘Oh, well walk,’” Tina said. “OK, well, do you know how tired you are when you’re hauling your stuff all the time? I'm 54 now, and I have arthritis in my knee. But just something as simple as helping the homeless with transportation so that we can get a job, so we can go to a job.”

Transit is a challenge McGhee knows well. Nonprofits repeatedly talk to her about it. It not only limits job opportunities, she said, but affordable housing options: people need to be placed along bus routes if they want to get anywhere.

While many nonprofits and McGhee’s coalition think about broader problems (and have success in their targeted project: they managed a 15 percent reduction in veterans' homelessness), there are smaller groups that conduct daily feedings in a park off Presidio. There’s the group that hands out Chik-Fil-A every day (or, to some of the crowds that line up every morning, the “Chicken People”). Cariaga’s group is incorporating itself into a nonprofit called “Love Acts.” It will go on without him when he returns to his native Philippines to protest for human rights in a few months.

Hopefully by that point, Mercedes said, she and her husband will be in an apartment, waiting to welcome the new baby. It’s a boy.

In the meantime, Cariaga is done administering camps for now — if another springs up organically, he’ll go, but he doesn’t start them. He hopes to one day be able to purchase land to make a legal area for the homeless — maybe tents, maybe tiny houses — but he’s a ways off. First, though, a trip back home.

Back around Lancaster, Cariaga parked his van and rolled down the window across from the True Worth building. Almost immediately, people began lining up for coffee or his signature tea: a blend of ginger, lemon grass, sassafras and turmeric.

When the line dissipated, a Fort Worth police officer came up to the passenger’s side window and asked him to move. Food handouts were to be done in the fenced-off area by Unity Park, she said.

“Sorry, of course,” Cariaga said. She walked off. Another homeless man approached the van. Could he have a water?

Cariaga handed one out the window. The officer was just a few yards away, back turned.

He shrugged. “She knows."

Have experience with homelessness or homeless services in Fort Worth? Reach out to reporter Sarah Smith at