A drive down East Lancaster Avenue has long provided the starkest images of homelessness — frayed suitcases and garbage bags full of people’s belongings lining the streets, and crowds of the homeless, wrapped in blankets, sleeping on the sidewalks day and night.
But now, the face of East Lancaster is changing.
A new program is paying for a private security company to patrol the area to keep the homeless moving, stopping them from trespassing on private property and pushing away the criminal element that was known to prey on them.
“If we are to have a co-existence between social services organizations and economic development and retail, it starts with safety,” said Toby Owen, executive director of the Presbyterian Night Shelter, one of the three homeless shelters in an area dominated by social service organizations.
In a program that started last spring, a security guard paid for by the Presbyterian Night Shelter patrols the streets on foot from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Working with Feed by Grace, the Presbyterian Night Shelter also keeps Unity Park open daily to give the homeless a place to rest and to gather during the day — preventing them from loitering on private property and clogging the sidewalks.
In a separate program started in October with a $39,000 grant from the city’s Crime Control and Prevention District, the same security company, Texas Industrial Security, patrols the homeless district from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. in a vehicle.
The guards give the homeless information on which shelters are still accepting clients, said Scott Westmoreland, security supervisor, and they also call police when they witness illegal activity, most often drug deals.
From October to December, the overall crime rate around the homeless shelters dropped 31 percent when compared with the same time period in 2013.
“That has always been a complaint, that it’s not safe. And the tide is turning,” Owen said.
Chris Watson, one of the owners of the Got You Covered uniform shop operating on East Lancaster, said he has always found the area to be safe, but said he has noticed a change in the atmosphere since the patrols started. Watson also said there has been less loitering on his property.
“Anytime you can add a voice of outreach to let people know what services are available to them, that is helpful and the patrol is just one more outreach opportunity,” he said.
Tammy Farnsworth, a resident of the Presbyterian Night Shelter who works downtown, said last year that she feared just going to and from the bus stop for work. Often, she was accompanied by a friend from the shelter because it made her feel safer. Now, she says her short walk is much better.
But not all of the homeless think the patrols are helping. For some, it is simply pushing them into living more dangerously.
“Shame on the city,” said a homeless man, Jordan, who did not want to give his last name for fear of retaliation. “We have nowhere else to sleep, no where else to go. They are pushing us around.”
For the most part, Jordan said he sleeps on the streets because of a fear of bed bugs and fights inside the shelter.
Now, he sleeps under the noisy Fort Worth mixmaster — along with about 15 other people on a nightly basis — because the boundaries of the security patrol don’t go that far.
Westmoreland said that while the security program tries to guide people into nearby shelters, there is no doubt some of the homeless simply go farther away to sleep.
“We have tried to educate the homeless and get them off the street, where they are not safe and get them into programs where they can be safe,” Westmoreland said.
“Who is being pushed out is the criminal element that were preying on the homeless. The homeless are typically not the criminals,” he said.
Caty Hirst, 817-390-7984