Kelly Allen Gray can remember coming to East Lancaster Avenue on the weekends to shop when she was a little girl.
She and her family would ride the bus to the thriving corridor that connected to downtown and buy groceries. Then they would stop for lunch at one of the many restaurants.
But when she came back to Fort Worth from college in the 1990s, “Lancaster wasn’t really a place that you shopped anymore.”
Gray, now a Fort Worth councilwoman, has seen the East Lancaster area transform into what is now known as the homeless district, a mix of shelters, resource centers and clinics. Homeless people spend most of their days milling about the district, swapping stories and searching for assistance and a free meal.
Three main shelters — the Presbyterian Night Shelter, the Union Gospel Mission and the Salvation Army — are the foundation of the area just southeast of downtown and just a couple of blocks from the city’s main transit center. The department and grocery stores and restaurants that once thrived in the area have closed, their windows boarded up to keep out intruders.
While the concentration of services has proved helpful for the homeless — it’s a one-stop shop for resources — the evolution of the homeless district has taken a toll on nearby neighborhoods, said Don Boren, a business owner and community leader on the east side.
“Development has basically ceased. We have actually lost a number of businesses, and there are a number of factors involved in this, but I think it can almost all be laid at that being the gateway to East Lancaster,” Boren said. “That is one-third of a mile of a 7 1/2-mile corridor, but we are all painted with the same brush.”
From July 2001 through July 2014, the value of new construction in the near southeast was $360 million, compared with $1.37 billion in Arlington Heights, $7.38 billion in the far north, $1.8 billion on the south side and $1.3 billion in the far east.
Similarly, the average value per square foot of property in 2007 was $14.50 on the near south side, $12.73 in west Fort Worth and $5.87 in the northeast. By comparison, land on the near southeast side was valued at $3.29.
Flora Brewer, one of the primary business owners on East Lancaster, has dealt with specific challenges while trying to spur development in the homeless district. She has helped coordinate the homeless shelters with the remaining business owners to solve problems, like regular trash pickup and security patrols.
To keep homeless residents from loitering in the area, the Presbyterian Night Shelter is working with the nonprofit Feed by Grace to keep Unity Park open during the week and weekend so people will have a place to gather. The park, with a basketball court, community gardens, grassy areas and oak trees, has become something of a sanctuary over the years.
In nearby buildings, Brewer has even painted murals on her exterior walls to brighten up the area.
Some might suggest that’s the equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig.
“We always want to go back to the glory days, but the truth of the matter is, we can’t go back,” Gray said. “We can just reshape it and make it look completely different and do some things that bring back the grandeur of that corridor.”