Dallas Leaders Balk at Tent City Closure Plans

May closing is still the goal

Dallas city leaders complained Wednesday about the plans from city officials and homeless service organizations to close the homeless tent camp under Interstate 45 in May.

"I don't want to discourage you. I want to encourage you. But, I think we need a different direction to handle this problem," Councilman Philip Kingston said.

The plan calls for offering shelter space to hundreds of people at the camp by filling five big Dallas homeless shelters to capacity and then adding 240 more emergency beds at those five.

The estimated cost of $1 million for adding and staffing the new shelter space would be split 50/50 between city funds and private donations raised by The Bridge homeless facility.

Neighborhood Councilman Adam Medrano complained that moving the campers has been the goal since last year but social service agencies have had little success.

Instead, Medrano said adding portable toilets and dumpsters at the I-45 site to improve sanitation has only encouraged more people to stay there.

"And now these folks are coming asking for more money, without a plan," Medrano said.

With the surge in homeless people at the site, Medrano said crime has risen, including a murder in February. In just the past seven days, Medrano said there were 56 calls to 911 from the tent city site and 46 from the nearby Bridge homeless shelter.

Downtown neighbors demonstrated against the plan Wednesday, complaining that too many of the additional shelter beds would be at downtown shelters. Medrano said Dallas has other shelters around the city that could be helping, too.

"I'd like to see you come back with a plan were everybody is helping out, trying to take care of these folks. I have a list here of the other shelters," Medrano said.

Many homeless people refuse to stay in shelters, a large reason why the tent camp grew so large.

Several other camping locations have sprung up in Dallas, including one with dozens of tents under Interstate 30 at Haskell Avenue near Fair Park.

Wince Thomas is staying at the I-30 camp with his girlfriend after leaving the I-45 camp.

"A friend of mine told me, 'Well, why don't you come over here? It's a lot calmer, a lot easier. Nobody's fighting and killing each other,'" Thomas said.

The couple lost their jobs but decline to stay at shelters because they've been a couple for five years and want to stay together. They said the shelters make men and women split up.

Thomas said homeless people are found many other places in Dallas.

"People are scattered everywhere. You go off in the woods and you probably find one," he said.

Council members worried Wednesday that closing the I-45 camp will only scatter more campers elsewhere.

"And one of the things I continue to talk about is getting to the root causes, because that's what we've got to deal with," Councilwoman Tiffinni Young said.

Mike Prezkwas is on the Dallas Heritage Village board. On Wednesday he called 911 because a tent was on fire just steps away from a park exhibit.

"This is the third time that this has happened that I know of," he said. "Nobody is really held accountable for what happens down here. This is a situation that has been ongoing since October 2014.

Prezkwas said the camp, known as "tent village," is bad for business. Fewer events are being booked and the educational enrichment that the park offers is being interrupted.

"People are having sex, they're going to the bathroom, they're eating, they're drinking. It's a concern for the kids," he said. "People come down here, they check the park out, they love it. They see this (the tents) and then they walk away."

Long-term solutions mentioned Wednesday include using the closed Dawson State Jail on Commerce Street as a shelter or Hensley Field, the former Dallas Naval Air Station, as a possible camping site or shelter location.

But short term, the plan is still to close I-45 tent city gradually, starting the first week in May.

"The goal will be that there is no arrests, no citations, but it will be done, working with our police department," Dallas City Manager A.C. Gonzalez said.

Police are making arrangements to store homeless people's property while they stay in shelters.

Gonzalez said the city is asking the Texas Department of Transportation to secure the I-45 site after is it cleared, but TxDOT has not made a commitment to money for better fencing.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings wanted City Council consensus in favor of the tent city plan Wednesday but said after the meeting it will get more review before a formal vote is requested.

NBC 5's Cory Smith contributed to this report.

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