Yasef was the first person we spoke to. After meeting him, I scribbled in my notes: “sad guy; red hat.” He was soft-spoken, downtrodden, and defeated. When I asked what he needed, the 6-foot-8-inch man said one thing: “clothes that fit me.”
We visited with a handful of other people in Tent City that day. And, when we left, Yasef and his group of friends called to us as we walked away. “Are you leaving?” one of the guys asked. “Yeah, but we’ll be back,” we promised. And then they all waved as we walked out.
I’ve lived and worked downtown for nearly six years. Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of social media chatter about the homeless in my neighborhood. The homeless have been called aggressive, carpetbaggers, and freeloaders. This all led to a crackdown on panhandling.
That hasn’t been my experience with the homeless downtown. My interactions have been more normal. And I wondered what I was missing. So when I heard that Tent City was being shut down entirely by May 4, I wanted to know more about the people this directly impacted. I found a dozen downtown neighbors who wondered the same. We decided to do a “Humans of New York”-style social media campaign and share the stories of the people who lived in Tent City. The campaign is called Dallas Street Stories and can be found on Facebook and Instagram. The stories focus on the people: why they’re there, where they’ll go, and what they need most. Our goal is to put the humanity back into the discussion of the homeless.
The other day we met Nina, who has a four-month-old Chihuahua named Chandler. As we talked about her life story, she told us her husband walked out on her while they were at Austin Street Shelter. Not knowing what to do, and knowing they’d lost their house, she found her way to Tent City. After talking for a while, we got up to walk away. We thanked her for her time and for her story. She looked up at us and said, “I’m not a nobody.”
We’re not arguing that Tent City should stay. But we want to show people that those living there are just like us — just without homes; that we all deserve a bit of respect; and we can’t judge an entire group based on the actions of a few. And it’s to show that there needs to be a plan in place.
There are many incredible organizations working to find shelter for the people living in Tent City. I’ve seen the people with Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance out there at 7 a.m., waking people up and helping them pack their belongings. I’ve heard how the folks at CitySquare have been helping people get their IDs and vouchers. And I was told that the Turtle Creek Recovery Center is one of the best in town.
We’ve been back to Tent City several times. With just a few visits, we’ve begun to learn the rhythm of the place and the people who call it home. On our last visit, we shared many hugs as people told us they’d found an apartment. And we shared tears as we learned that Nina’s dog, Chandler, had been killed.
On one of our visits back, we ran into Yasef and his friends. He was smiling. He got up and shook all of our hands. And then he said, “I got an apartment.” With the help of MDHA, he had already moved in. He thanked us for listening to his story and for caring.
When we asked him why he was hanging out at Tent City, he simply said, “I can’t forget where I came from.”
Krista Nightengale, a former managing editor of D Magazine, is managing director at Better Block Foundation. If you want to get involved with the Dallas Street Stories campaign, send a note to [email protected].