Tuesday, March 21, 2023 Mar 21, 2023
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Local Government

Voices From Camp Rhonda Near Dallas City Hall

The South Dallas encampment became home for dozens without housing until the city evicted them. They returned in the shadow of City Hall, wanting to talk. Let's hear them.
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At the end of last year, a privately-owned lot on Ferris Street near Interstate 45 in South Dallas became home for more than two dozen unsheltered Dallasites. It was known as Camp Rhonda, named for Rhonda Fenwick, who died of organ failure while living there. The property owner, Johnny Aguinaga, had allowed these unsheltered residents to stay on the property so long as they kept it clean. But the city had other ideas, threatening daily fines of $2,000 as long as the 30 or so tents remained up.

The city’s reasoning was “illegal land use.” The area was zoned industrial, but it also protected these residents from the frequent encampment sweeps that happened elsewhere in the city, particularly in public parks. Volunteer organizations like Dallas Stops Evictions, Feed the People Dallas, and Diaspora United offered hygiene products, food, and other supplies. The Dallas Houseless Committee raised money to pay for brief hotel stays after the first eviction and also hoped to spur a conversation about longterm housing for the city’s most vulnerable.

According to news reports, the city had also worked to move some of the individuals to the city-owned Hotel Miramar, but most were back on the street days later.

In fact, they were right in front of City Hall, at Pioneer Plaza. The encampment moved here so that they would be seen. They want to have a conversation with the city. Shelters have cut capacity to better control the spread of coronavirus. Pets are often not allowed. There are strict curfews and limits on what items can be brought in. Considering these factors, many unsheltered residents have chosen to live outside.

City spokeswoman Roxana Rubio says a dozen residents received testing for COVID-19 at Pioneer Plaza. Fifteen were vaccinated with the single shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Two were placed in emergency shelter and another two were provided resources for gaining identification at the Stewpot, another shelter that provides services to houseless Dallasites. Housing at shelters was offered to the residents, Rubio said.

Camp Rhonda’s relocation was a way to force the city into having a conversation about housing and services available to those who need them most. Many of those who lived at Camp Rhonda say there is no path to permanent housing. Setting up camp at Pioneer Park was a way to bring awareness to that issue, among others.

On Friday, the city gave the camp a 24-hour notice to vacate. The police and the Office of Homeless Solutions arrived on Saturday and followed through. The Dallas Morning News, the Dallas Observer, and KERA all covered it. We had a recorder at Pioneer Park, speaking to some of the unsheltered, activists, and police officers present that day. Here is what they had to say, edited for length and clarity.

City equipment outside Pioneer Plaza as residents of Camp Rhonda were once again moved.

Dustin Enriquez, 31

Enriquez was a Camp Rhonda resident. 

When the cameras were on, people were talking about what terrible conditions they’re in. That didn’t really make sense to me. People had more freedom. Shelters require you to be in at a certain time. Here, people were picking up the trash. People liked the freedom they had. We were policing ourselves. People loved being here. I just wish the people could express how nice it was.

And the reason they don’t want to leave is because it was a very good setting. We have appreciation for the city in that manner. Because in a lot of other cities, you know, the homeless, they don’t live as well as they do out here. In a lot of other cities, the homeless are treated a lot worse than what these people are being treated. I just wish we could all get along. Camp Rhonda has given us what people need, a perspective on both sides.

Try to look at every single one of these people to see where their issue lies. There might not be a grand solution that fixes everything. We should compress the problem, and then we look at it, and we diverge to solve each individual problem until there’s nothing left.

We only have a handful of people here. This is not a mob. There’s not hundreds of people. We have, you know, 20 to 30 people. This is a good thing that is happening because now we get to put a microscope on each and every one of them. And we can see what the problem is. It’s a caseworker for each and we could hopefully solve their problems.

That’s the good thing about this, right? These people are highlighting themselves. We can find them a lot easier. That is so hopeful. Sometimes, you know, things like this need to happen. The real problem is, there’s not no low-income housing available. And what is there is not enough.

Ryan Ahmadian, Dallas Stops Evictions

Dallas Stops Evictions is a nonprofit and mutual aid provider that helps promote housing rights for low- and no-income individuals. 

We tried to start a line of communication with the city and let them know we have no alternative place to go. This tactic that they use, just shutting down encampments with no alternative solution—we understand that shelters are not an alternative solution, right? That’s not a long-term goal. It’s a very toxic environment, it’s not kept very well, the food situation is horrible. And there’s no end-goal in sight.

There is no housing in sight, which is why we need to put pressure on the city to create options for permanent low-income to no-income housing. They wouldn’t listen to us. They didn’t want to communicate with us. And so we understood that when we, when they dispersed us from (the last location,) we had nowhere to go. So we decided to come here, somewhere that they will listen to us, right here on Pioneer Plaza, right in front of City Hall, their convention center. It’s a very public area.

And it’s ultimately somewhere where we’re not supposed to be, which is why they’re out here with, you know, 30 police officers ready to arrest people, throw people’s stuff away. They’re here to continue that same act of violence, that same cycle of displacement, with no alternative solution. They’re coming out, we’re scrambling to get people into shelters. But people are hesitant to go into the shelters because they’ve already been through that process for years and years. And it didn’t lead to housing.

So that’s why we’re out here. It’s a little bit unfortunate to see how many resources the city put into intimidating us to try to get us out of here. And ultimately, it worked. Because many people here have already been through traumatic experiences with the police by being out on the streets, because that’s how the police treat them. They criminalize poor people, they vilify them, and they look for any and every reason to make their lives miserable, which is how they’re doing it here. They found we’re violating three park ordinances since we’re out here between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., you’re not allowed to set up a tent on park property. And they saw a dog here without a leash. So they’re trying to shut it down.

There is no housing in sight, which is why we need to put pressure on the city to create options for permanent low-income to no-income housing.

Ryan Ahmadian, Dallas Stops Evictions

The reason they used with Camp Rhonda in our original location was it was on private property. It was zoned for industrial purposes, but we were using it for residential purposes. Therefore, it’s being used for illegal uses that it wasn’t intended for. So they used that to shut that down. And we understand that no matter where we go, it’s going to be the same. They’re going to shut us down without providing any real, concrete alternative solution, which is why we wanted to come out here to put pressure on them to speed up the process of an alternative solution. Otherwise, they’re just dragging their feet, and they do the bare minimum.

What we’ve seen by being out here is actually successful, because it sped up a lot of processes, both providing services and creating dialogue with the city. We were hoping to stay out here a little bit longer, while we were able to create that venue for a transparent community meeting between the city manager, the mayor, council members, Office of Homeless Solutions, Dallas Housing Authority, HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) if it wants to get in there. DPD if it wants to get in there, you know, all responsible parties, all stakeholders, as well as the Dallas Houseless Committee, which is a union of the homeless led by the homeless in the interest of the homeless. They should have the most say in how these policies play out, because it affects them the most.

We’re hoping that we can still continue that despite moving from this location, which is ultimately what’s going to happen, whether it’s voluntarily or forcefully.

Port-a-Potties arranged at Pioneer Park for residents of Camp Rhonda.

Johnny Lee, 71

Lee was a resident of Camp Rhonda. 

I was at Rhonda and left and went to a motel for two weeks. Then I came over here on Monday night. We were about to leave, then they said everywhere we go they’re gonna run us down. They’re trying to force everybody to go to a shelter. It’s probably safer. But the shelter is making money off us. That’s the whole key to the whole situation, profiting off people who live on the streets.

If you get us off the street, you have a clean street. No doubt about that. But the shelter is behind the pressure on the people living in the tents.

I stayed in a shelter from 2012 all the way up to June of this year. I got tired of that lockdown and I just left. I packed my stuff and walked out. Austin Street kept us to two bags, 25 pounds per bag. And they include the weight of the suitcase, if you have a suitcase. They wanted us to bathe every day, and if you don’t bathe they’ll put you out. I was spending too much money on the vending machine. Cigarettes cost $9 a pack. So I thought I’d be better out on the streets.

The only thing I need to do is slow down and get me a place to stay. I get a check every month. And if I get a place to stay, I can make it off that.

It’s a hassle. You put in an application, pay an application fee, they run a check on you. You don’t get that money back, whether you get an apartment or not. It ain’t nothing but a con game. It’s all about money.

Deputy Chief Thomas Castro, Dallas Police Department

Castro was among the police officers who arrived over the weekend. This transcript was produced from a conversation he had with activists and camp residents, explaining the police presence and their actions. 

Here’s the deal — (the camp) was not just the people who needed services. It wasn’t just the homeless. We started having criminal offenses in there, we started having drug sales.

Permanent housing is going to take having a different dialogue with different communities. Look, I have officers who started the pilot program in the downtown area that did reach out to the homeless. You’ll see the homeless people who stay here actually go to these officers and say, ‘hey, I know you can get me get off the street.’

I’ve been here in the downtown area. I know that we can’t just arrest these folks. We used to just arrest them and put them in jail on these charges. We’re here trying to remove, not arrest. (Here, he’s asked about why police are carrying zip ties.) My officers have to be able to protect themselves. The homeless people aren’t even here, it’s the advocates. I’m not saying they’re causing a problem. I will say most of the homeless are gone. They’re packing up and they’re moving.

Don’t start that narrative that they’re scared. I don’t know where they’re going after this. I can only do what I can do. I can’t give housing. We have to enforce the law. We can’t just have people popping up in parks.

Jerry Henderson

Henderson is a Dallas resident without shelter. He lived at the original Camp Rhonda and at Pioneer Plaza and did not provide his age. 

They want us to give up. They want us to bow down to them, to listen to them. We’re not doing that. They want us to listen to them? They have to listen to us. They have to do what they said they’re going to do. So far, they haven’t done any of it at all. We’ve been over here four or five days now, making a stand to make the city realize — the council people, the mayor, everyone — realize that if y’all wanna help us, then help us. Don’t sit there and tell us one thing and then do another. You’re getting our hopes up to high heaven and then crushing them, like we’re nothing but dirt.

Everyone is getting sick and tired of the city coming out, threatening to arrest us, file complaints on us. We need as many people as we can possibly get to stand on our side to make the city realize that we’re not backing down, not one bit. We’re going to fight this fight until our last breath.

All my family here is standing here right now because we have decided we are not going to back down. No matter where we go or where they run us off, we’ll find another place no matter what. We’re going to fight the good fight and we’re not going to back down.

Charles Mosley, 59

Mosley was not a resident of Camp Rhonda, nor did he identify as an activist. He said he was present to help out a few of the people who were being displaced. 

They move you here, then you stay here. But then they come and run you off from over there. And they come and run you off from over there. A lot of people don’t want to live in a shelter because there are strict rules. And rules are a part of life. But on the other end, there’s also cash behind that. Cash behind living in shelters. And it’s all about the almighty dollar.

Aeshna, the ‘Protest Mom’

Aeshna, who declined to give their last name and age, is a mutual aid provider who volunteered and spent time at both camps. 

It was 100 percent intentional (to relocate to Pioneer Plaza). It was to put pressure on the city to stop the sweeps, stop throwing folks’ belongings away, provide services for the homeless that are out there. If you’re not going to provide adequate housing, give us a lot where we can safely set up tents and facilities. When we’re out of sight, out of mind, they don’t do anything except throw people’s stuff away. We try to provide services to them, but then a few weeks later everybody’s gone.

We got the notice from the city that we were violating city code, that we weren’t using the lot as it was intended. And it’s an area of Dallas where nobody is driving by, the sight of it doesn’t really bother anybody. It was on Ferris Street, a big industrial area.

What we want is folks to be safe and to have services. Ideally, everybody would get into housing. There is city housing that’s empty. The city-owned Hotel Miramar, a lot of folks just don’t want to go because of all the rules. Same with shelters. You have to be in by 8 p.m., you can’t have guests. At the Miramar, they stopped allowing us to bring in food for folks and we were getting calls from people saying ‘hey, we’re hungry.’

They’re giving disposable cups of cereal and a plain bologna sandwich and that’s their meal for the night. It becomes a family, it really does. There are some interpersonal issues that come up, like any family. But when you’re spending 24/7 with people, you get to know them. I really enjoyed being here. I spent a significant amount of time when we were back on Ferris Street. I would bring my camp chair and hang out. I sit here and I do my day job all day long. I have a tent set up right over there. I was spending my nights here, too.

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