Fort Worth

Fort Worth forcing homeless to abandon ‘tent city’ campsite

Amy Bernoski-Ebnet of the nonprofit Rita's Hope, right, gives a homeless man a hug at a soon-to-be-demolished homeless camp that sits on private property, southeast of downtown Fort Worth.
Amy Bernoski-Ebnet of the nonprofit Rita's Hope, right, gives a homeless man a hug at a soon-to-be-demolished homeless camp that sits on private property, southeast of downtown Fort Worth. Star-Telegram

David Miller unlocks the door to his home and walks over the floral rugs and past the eclectically decorated walls before taking a seat in an armchair, calling to his fluffy white cat, Chamuka.

Miller’s beloved Chamuka is one of the only things in the modest little house — complete with a bedroom, closet space, windows, cleaning supplies and food — that he will take when he is forced to move Saturday.

Miller is homeless, just like the other 50 or so people living in a makeshift “tent city” hidden behind bushes and trees at East Vickery Boulevard and South Riverside Drive.

The city will raze the campsite Saturday after complaints from the property owner and area residents. It is illegal for the homeless to camp on private property, and officials say they want to eradicate other problems in the area, such as drugs and prostitution.

Miller has lived for about a year in a shanty built out of the things people throw away — old carpet, neglected wood, a roughed-up chair — a shelter from unbearable summer days and bone-chilling ice storms alike.

“I just go by what they say,” Miller said of the city’s plans. “I know of places I can go. That’s why I’m not really worried. I’m not worried at all. I’ll go somewhere. I’m not going to go too far when I go — no further than what I can carry in a couple bags of clothes without getting too tired.”

The city gave the homeless residents verbal notice that they needed to leave six weeks ago, gave them written notice last week and brought in service providers to try to connect the people with programs and shelters, said Brandon Bennett, the city’s director of code compliance.

Moving the problem

Amy Bernoski Ebnet, founder of a newly formed nonprofit Rita’s Hope, said the city isn’t solving the problem by closing the camp — it is simply moving the problem.

“What is going to happen on March 28, of moving the property these individuals have and putting it in dumpsters and then giving them nowhere to go, is not a solution to homelessness. That just continues to move a problem,” Ebnet said.

“And when I say moving them, I don’t mean relocating them. I mean knocking over their stuff and having them go find somewhere else to live.”

Ebnet wants the city to find a sustainable solution for the campers, who are part of Fort Worth’s unsheltered homeless population. A recent homeless count showed 184 people living unsheltered in Tarrant County.

Ebnet suggests bringing in sanitation facilities like showers and toilets and giving the homeless trash services and providing security. Her nonprofit, which hopes to restore humanity to the homeless, could provide portable toilets and lighting, she said.

She also worries that Fort Worth’s permanent shelters in the homeless district around East Lancaster Avenue don’t have the capacity to hold the campers, even if they wanted to move indoors. Fort Worth’s three privately run shelters are consistently at capacity.

And many camp residents have their reasons for not staying at shelters: The strict intake hours aren’t conducive to working temporary jobs; fights and theft are common; the rules about bringing in food and alcohol are bothersome; and bedbugs and lice are a worry.

James Peace, 60, works as a handyman and says he was often too late to get into the shelters because he doesn’t have set hours.

Peace, whose tent entrance is decorated with potted flowers on each side and a welcome mat, said being forced out by the city is “degrading.”

If the campers must be moved, Ebnet said, they should be moved “with dignity.”

‘Managing’ the problem

Bennett, however, said living outdoors is not the best alternative.

“We are pushing these folks toward the services and the lifestyle that will break the chains that will get them out of homelessness,” Bennett said, adding that they are “managing” the problem, not moving it.

“I was down there and watched a young girl exchange sex for money — prostitution is not a way out of homelessness. We are going down there and people are doing drugs and drinking — that is not a way out of homelessness,” Bennett said. “They are not getting the medical services they need to have a healthy lifestyle — that is not getting out of homelessness.”

Bennett said the campsites also pose a problem for the property owner. He said the city had to pay $15,000 to repair one piece of tax-foreclosed property that was vandalized by campers.

For Saturday’s razing, the property owner will be forced to pay for part of the cleanup because he is responsible for the trash on his land.

“To a big degree, he is a victim,” Bennett said. “These people trespassed on his property, littered on his property and destroyed parts of property. I’m sorry they are homeless, but there are a lot of services available to these folks, and I encourage them to take part in the process.”

Thankful for the notice

Fort Worth cleans up about 100 camps a year, Bennett said, though this is one of the larger ones. In the last year, he said, the city has removed 68,000 pounds of trash from homeless campsites. And he said the city keeps the usable belongings for several days for the homeless to claim.

Jackie Webb, known by friends as “Jamaica,” said he is thankful the city gave the homeless notice. A few weeks ago, the city also brought in low-cost spay-and-neutering services for pets that live with campers. Webb’s two puppies, Angie and Ashley, got fixed and got their shots.

Webb started moving his little family to a new location Thursday, walking what he said was about 10 miles back and forth, pushing his stuff in shopping carts.

“I thank God for the city, because they gave us a little extra time to move. If ain’t nobody move, that is on them. But they was nice enough to allow us to stay out here for a little bit of time, let us get ourselves together and work and stuff like that,” Webb said.

For Miller, he isn’t worried about leaving his little shack. He just wants to make sure that he can bring Chamuka with him as he starts over — again.

Caty Hirst, 817-390-7984

Twitter: @catyhirst

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